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The Gambler (2014/III)
All In, 18 December 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. "I'm all in!" That's a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it's more proof that he is "the kind of guy that likes to lose" … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams ("Boardwalk Empire"), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation. These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it's a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It's obvious Wahlberg is "all in" for this role, but it's difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg's class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg's world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg's misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg's dying grandfather in the film's opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg's estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it's Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on "F.U. money" is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it's over. With so much that works, it's a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

Not Resisting Evil, 18 December 2014
8/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Brace yourself for 3 hours and 19 minutes of heavy listening. Yes, the film was named Palme d'Or at the most recent Cannes, and the dialogue is exceptionally well written, but this isn't one you can just kick back and enjoy. It requires some effort. The two big "action" sequences involve a 10 year old boy tossing a rock and later, his too proud father dropping something into a fireplace. The real action occurs between the ears of the viewer as we assimilate the moods and nuances and double-meanings that accompany the stream of conversations.

Award-winning director Nuri Bilge Ceylan co-wrote the script with his wife Ebru Ceylan, and that probably attributes to the sharpness and poignancy of the relationships between Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Much of the film is devoted to one of two things: Aydin making himself feel important, or Nihal and/or Necla voicing their opinions on why he isn't. While that may sound simple, the wordplay and grounded performances often leave us with the feeling that we are eavesdropping on very private conversations.

Filmed in the breathtakingly beautiful Cappadocia region of Anatolia, the geological spectrum contrasts mightily with the near claustrophobic interior scenes that dominate the run time. In fact, when one of the characters does venture outdoors, viewers will find themselves breathing easier and in relief of the stressful intimacy of other scenes.

Hotel Othello is cut directly into one of the more picturesque hillsides of the area, and owner Aydin spends his days locked away in his office, kicking off his latest article bashing societal and morality changes within the village. Aydin has a pretty easy life, as he has inherited the hotel and numerous income producing rental properties from his father. Aydin's career as a stage actor also adds a bit to his local celebrity (and ego). He fancies himself an important man with an important voice, and never hesitates to broadcast his charitable offerings.

Aydin lives at the hotel with his much younger wife Nihal, and his recently divorced sister Necla. The dysfunction abounds as none of the three much respect the others, and manage to express this in the most incisive, passive-aggressive ways possible. There are two extended (each pushing 30 minutes) exchanges that are unlike anything you may have ever seen on screen. One has Necla letting Aydin know what she thinks of his articles, while the other has Nihal finally coming clean with her feelings of being held back, emotionally captive. Both scenes are captivating and powerful, yet voices are never raised and facial expressions are crucial. This is intimate filmmaking at its best and most uncomfortable … psychological warfare would not be too extreme as a description.

Conflict is crucial for a dialogue-driven film. Some of the best include My Dinner with Andre, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and 12 Angry Men. These are the type of movies that cause us to study all the subtleties within a scene … not just what is said, but how it is said and how the message is conveyed. Pride, loneliness and despair run rampant through the characters here and the philosophical discussions force each to lay bare their soul.

For so little action, an undercurrent of wild emotions flows through every scene. In addition to the three leads, there is a character named Hamdi (an Islamic teacher/adviser, played by Serhat Mustafa Kilic) who plays the role of peace-keeper and mediator. His constant smile is but a mask he is forced to wear in his role, and I found his character the most painful of all to watch.

The title may be interpreted as either a "hibernation" or "sleep-walking through life's final stages", and both fit very well. The hotel provides a cave-like hiding place for Aydin, as he pretends to play his final role – that of an important man in the village. There are some truly masterful moments in the film, and it's easy to see why it appeals to only a certain type of film goer. Inspired by the short stories of Chekhov (The Wife, Excellent People), as well as the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Voltaire, means the viewer is investing emotionally in characters quite full of resentment and oh so dishonest with themselves. It's an undertaking that is difficult, but does offer the opportunity to test one's listening skills and ability to read body language. It also comes with wisdom such as … Donkeys lead camels (you'll have to watch the movie!).

Disciple of Experience, 17 December 2014
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Whenever you start to feel confident – even a little cocky – about how good you are at your job, stop for a moment and consider Leonardo da Vinci. How is this for a dose of humility? Even today, Leonardo is still considered one of the foremost painters, sculptors, inventors, engineers and mathematicians. This despite no formal education … and dying almost 500 years ago! It makes you wonder what he could have accomplished with computers and the internet.

History Films and director Julian Jones were provided access to Leonardo's private notebooks, drawings and journals … more than 6000 pages that range from shopping lists, to mechanical inventions, to nature drawings. This Docu-Drama is presented in the unique manner of casting actor Peter Capaldi (Dr Who) as the interpreter of Leonardo's words and works. He facilitates the movements between Leonardo's childhood (as an illegitimate kid) in Tuscany, his move to Florence at age 16, his nearly two decades in Milan, and subsequent return to Tuscany where he spent 15 years painting a merchant's wife ... a painting now known as the "Mona Lisa".

Playing very much like an educational tool designed for junior high and high school students, the film is also is an engaging way to present some insight into history's single most observant and curious deep thinker. We see and hear Leonardo's thoughts on war strategy and weapons, the geometrics of the human face, tips on fitness ("eat only when hungry") and of course, his obsessions with human flight and anatomy. Beyond that, the journals offer a taste of his sense of humor and thoughts on sexual desire. It's clear his thoughts bounced from topic to topic, and his sense of wonder created a never ending flow of ideas. While we often term it observation and analysis, Leonardo's words are translated into experiencing something and then seeking out the cause. Newly filmed images are blended with Leonardo's own drawings to keep the viewer on track.

Vitruvian Man is one of the more iconic images seen throughout society, and Leonardo's painting "The Last Supper" has been copied and reproduced frequently. Although he died in France at age 67 having finished only 21 paintings, and having most of his inventions survive in theory only, the breadth of his knowledge and writings explain why the phrase "Renaissance Man" was coined to describe Leonardo (as well as Michelangelo). The film offers an entertaining and engaging introduction to Leonardo da Vinci, and today's "thinkers" will undoubtedly be inspired to learn more.

Wild (2014)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Better a Hammer than a Nail, 14 December 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. The best movies expertly provide a visual representation of quality writing. However, the film medium is somewhat limited, and especially struggles, in displaying the complexities of human introspection … something the best writers are able to capture with words on a page. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer's Club) and writer Nick Hornby (An Education, High Fidelity) are simply unable to capture the guts of Cheryl Strayed's memoir "Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" – despite the likely Oscar nominated performance of Reese Witherspoon.

It's quite likely, given the steady stream of rave reviews, that my lack of connection with the film is firmly planted in a small minority of movie goers and film critics. On the bright side, it's a real pleasure to see Reese Witherspoon follow-up her no frills supporting role in Mud with a strong portrayal of uber-flawed Cheryl.

The story picks up with Cheryl getting ready for her 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995. Her lack of trail experience is obvious from the unwrapped, shiny new contents of her "monster" backpack. While walking alone with her thoughts, memories are triggered by such things as a song, a horse, and even a phrase. It's through these flashbacks that we learn the reasons for Cheryl's trek towards self-discovery. The illness and death of her beloved mother, a childhood marred by an abusive father, her own crumbled marriage brought on by her promiscuity ("I cheated on him a lot"), and her attempts to dull the pain through heroin abuse, have led Cheryl to the trail head of re-discovering her true self.

Cheryl's mother is played by Laura Dern (a terrific performance) and while her inspiration is obvious, there is one especially poignant scene that takes place in the kitchen … Bobbi tells Cheryl that she fully understands their plight, and refuses to let that define her life. That powerful scene is negated by the awkward and unexplained relationship Cheryl has with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), the underdeveloped best friend support shown from an intriguing Gaby Hoffmann, and the voice mail connection with her brother (Keene McRae). More of these key people and fewer flashbacks might have allowed us to better relate to Cheryl as a person, rather than someone who hasn't dealt well with a few life obstacles.

The familiar guitar strumming of Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" is heard throughout, as are numerous literary quotes that Cheryl used to leave her mark in the trail journals. There are, of course, similarities here to other films such as Into The Wild, 127 Hours, and Eat Pray Love. Also present is the element of a solitary woman in the wilderness … every male presence is greeted with anxiety from Cheryl, especially in contrast to the warm greeting she offers another female hiker.

The biggest missing link for me was Cheryl's apparent epiphany. We witness a couple of emotional breakdowns along the trail, plus big time blisters, damaged toenails, rain and snow, and nature's beauty. What's not explained is her personal growth and self-discovery – the moment when Cheryl put the past behind and went "above her nerve". While her desire and efforts are commendable, the real story would be her inner thoughts … those conversations going on inside her brain (and in the book) that led to a conclusion of which we aren't privy.

1 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
A Throwback Biblical Epic, 11 December 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic "wow" factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses' father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it's sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding "yes" to the question of … "Are you not entertained?"

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Film by Committee, 11 December 2014
4/10

Greetings again from the darkness. It's either a most unusual biopic on Pulitzer Prize winning poet CK Williams, an example of how director Terrence Malick has influenced the next wave of filmmakers, or a self-congratulatory exercise disguised as a class project. Regardless of your final take, most cinephiles will muster at least a modicum of interest in a film with 11 directors and 12 writers … each NYU film students during James Franco's time on campus as an adjunct professor.

We see the life of CK Williams through the flashbacks and memories of James Franco (as an adult Williams prepping for a reading of "Tar"). Williams as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student (played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) offer a glimpse into the girls and events that helped shape his poetry. The sequence of Williams as a child is so similar to Malick's Tree of Life, that we viewers experience our own flashbacks … right down to Jessica Chastain recreating her scenes from that movie (this time as Williams' mother).

Mila Kunis plays Catherine, Williams' second and current wife, and it's clear – in a modern expressionist kind of way – that they are very happy together. There are a couple of disjointed sequences that come across as created simply to provide an outlet for Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. However, when dealing with poetry, rules don't apply … at least that seems to be what this group of young filmmakers would have us believe. The washed out colors, fuzzy focus, shots of nature, and muted emotions dotted with monotone dialogue are all elements of artsy films. Whether these are the foundations of artsy films is a separate topic. Interspersed throughout are a couple of clips of CK Williams with his own readings.

Experimental filmmaking is always a risk and should not be discouraged. It's given us every advance in the medium for a century. It is a bit worrisome, however, when experimental film appears so similar to the work of a current master. Let's hope that's just the first step in the process of developing filmmakers. This one also acts as a reminder that turning poetry into actual images often defeats the purpose of the written words.

4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
You can't get rid of The Babadook, 7 December 2014
8/10

Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing more frightening than the thoughts that occur within the recesses of our own mind. And therein lies the problem with so many "horror" movies. We may squirm and cover our eyes while watching the latest slasher film, but to stick with us as real horror, a film must tap into those internal, psychological fears that we each carry. This first feature film from writer/director Jennifer Kent does that so effectively that I am hesitant to write much more than … go see this one (but of course, I will).

Ms. Kent has fully developed her award winning short film Monster from 2005. With a limited budget of around $2 million, she has figured out a way to utilize many horror staples: a misfit child, the family dog, an old house with creaky floors and doors, a musty basement, old reliables like under the bed and in the closet, open windows, and the always effective knocks on the door. Combine these touches with an incredibly creepy and dramatically graphically illustrated children's book, and terrific characters in the mom and her young son, and all the elements are in place for a suspenseful and terrifying film that is a throwback to the good old days.

It's easy to spot the influences of such classics as William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but Ms. Kent has her own style with the camera and expertly creates an atmosphere of widely disparate mood swings grounded in believable characters. Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) delivers an extraordinary performance as Amelia, whose husband died en route to the hospital as she gave birth to their son. Noah Wiseman plays Samuel, the now 7 year old boy who has behavioral issues, fears the monster under his bed, and recognizes the resentment his mom feels towards him as a constant reminder of the death that occurred on the day of his birth. Wiseman looks like a cross between Elijah Wood in Witness and Danny in The Shining … only he is much more energetic and animated than either of those characters.

The suspense builds as Amelia's lack of sleep progressively wears her down, as her job and parenting responsibilities rob her of any down time or relaxation. She can't even get through a solo release in bed without her frightened son barging in for security. The dynamic between mother, son and dead husband/father elevate this to a level of psychological thrills that we don't often get on screen. There are so many superb moments to "enjoy". The amount of blood present is minimal, especially in comparison to modern day slashers. It's much more about how grief and stress can affect us in sinister ways. In addition to the influences already listed, there is also a tip of the cap to pioneer Georges Mêlées and his use of magic in the early days of film. Babadook may be an anagram for "a bad book", but it's also now synonymous with a really good horror movie!

Nash (2013)
The Assist Master, 4 December 2014
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. In the way that Steve Nash is a different kind of professional athlete, this is a different kind of documentary about a professional athlete. Despite the film's subject being a 7-time NBA All-Star and 2-time League MVP, there are only a few game clips and highlights. Instead co-directors Michael Hamilton and Corey Ogilvie focus their attention on something much more interesting … Steve Nash, the man.

The celebrity talking heads offering insight into Nash include not just the expected hoopsters like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, but surprise commentary from folks such as actor Owen Wilson, Todd Marinovich (former football prodigy), director Ron Howard, and even President Obama. We soon enough understand why the list of Nash fans is so varied and extensive.

The film shows Nash as a very talented Canadian high schooler whom most doubted could play Division 1 ball. Nash never doubted. A few years later, most scouts doubted that the skinny Santa Clara point guard had an NBA future. Nash never doubted. After being selected 15th overall in the 1996 draft, most doubted he would ever be a starting player. Nash never doubted. After leading the Canadian Olympic basketball team to a strong finish, Nash came back as one of the best players in the league in 2001. Later, as a free agent, he went through a nasty contract battle between Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks owner) and the Phoenix Suns. Nash became a very rich man, and no doubters remained.

That's the stuff that most basketball fans know. The off-the-court Steve Nash is a family man who loves his 3 kids – even signing with the Lakers to be close to them. This Steve Nash has a foundation that builds hospitals and helps underprivileged kids. This Steve Nash started a film production company that produced the award-winning documentary Into the Wind on Canadian hero Tony Fox. This Steve Nash is the guy that when things don't go his way says "That's life", and he just keeps moving forward.

One segment of the film contrasts the hype of a player like Lebron James coming out of high school versus the underdog, little noticed player like Nash. It's a reminder of the celebrity society we live in, and how a few seem to be able to avoid the spotlight and live a productive life. So while most know Steve Nash as one of only 3 point guards to win the NBA MVP (Magic Johnson, Bob Cousy), this film introduces us to the Steve Nash that we would really like to know … the skateboarding guy doing good things for our world.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
All My Famous Friends, 4 December 2014
7/10

Greetings again from the darkness. In the biographical documentary genre, a stream of talking heads is ordinarily my least favorite approach. However, director Gracie Otto (sister of actress Miranda) understands that when your subject is "the most famous person you've never heard of", it's pretty impressive and effective to line-up 50+ celebrities to offer their thoughts and memories of the man.

Michael White. Maybe you know the name, maybe you don't. Even before the opening credits, we get rapid-fire celebrity descriptions of Mr. White and his impact on theatre, film and the creative society of the 1960's and 70's. Director Otto explains how she first noticed Mr. White at the Cannes Film Festival as a slew of celebrities paid their respects. She then began her research into this most interesting man whose 50 year career has left quite a personal stamp.

We hear descriptions such as "he likes people" and he "likes being where the action is". This about a man who grew up in Scotland, was educated in Switzerland, and worked in New York … before making a real mark in London's West End Theatre district. His infamous dinner parties allowed paths to cross between the brightest in stage, art, film, and publishing. He had an eye for talent outside the mainstream – experimental and avant garde appealed to him … those who pushed the envelope (or ignored it completely). Because of this, his sphere of influence included such diverse personalities as Pina Bausch, Yoko Ono, John Waters and Kate Moss. His stage production of "Oh! Calcutta" was a major cultural breakthrough and led to others such as the original "Rocky Horror Show", and the iconic comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When Ms. Otto asks him why he has so many friends, Mr. White replies that "you never lose a friend". This comes after we have learned that powerful music producer Lou Adler took advantage of him during negotiations for the Rocky Horror rights in the U.S. White does acknowledge that he has been "cheated" a few times over the years. Another apt description is that he is "drawn to excitement more than money". It's then that we learn of his incredible archive of 30,000 photographs – from a time before the paparazzi ruled the world.

The odd font style makes some of the on screen graphics difficult to read, but the music reminds us that Michael White's legacy from the swinging 60's as a playboy and gambling Producer is quite secure Today Mr. White lives a modest life, and periodically has to auction his collections to raise funds. He has had a couple of strokes, walks with the aid of two canes, and is sometimes difficult to understand. He still has regular dinners with friends … after all, with this attitude in life, one never loses a friend.

Koufax and Dysfunction, 4 December 2014
6/10

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jesse Quinones exorcises a few personal demons with this presentation based on his own childhood. While sharing in his therapy, we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the chaotic dysfunction of 12 year old Josh, his mother, and her live-in boyfriend.

Josh (newcomer Luca Oriel) is a mixed race boy who shows some potential as a young baseball player, but he is being pushed hard by his mother's boyfriend Byrd (Andre Royo, "The Wire"). In this case, pushed hard can be defined as abused and bullied in an extreme manner. See Byrd is the kind of guy who expects the impossible from everyone else, while expecting almost nothing from himself. He is an overbearing mentor who physically and mentally abuses Josh, and doesn't think twice about cursing out kids or adults.

In this type of situation, one would hope the mother would step in to protect her son. However, Byrd is just as abusive and domineering towards Debbie (Daisy Haggard), and given her mostly absent relationship with her father (Han Howes), she seems to be attracted to those who treat her poorly. When Debbie comes begging for a $10,000 loan, her dad has one condition ... Josh is to prepare for a Bar Mitzvah. It seems an odd request, but Josh is soon spending time with Rabbi Brookstein (Sean McConaghy) who brings out an intellectual curiosity in Josh that had not previously been seen.

It's a bit unusual for a film to tackle a character so apparently lacking in morality as Byrd. Andre Royo doesn't blink in his portrayal of a guy who hits his girlfriend, beats her son, drinks excessively, steals from her so he can buy drugs, and puts very little effort into earning money to help pay for things like food, the mortgage, or utilities.

It's also unusual for a film to go directly after the challenges of racial, ethnic, class, and religious stereotypes. That said, it would have been nice to show more interaction between Josh and the Rabbi, rather than the relentless stream of "family" dysfunction. The Sandy Koufax history lesson was a good touch and helped tie in the Jewish theme with baseball, but we were much more interested in the process of building Josh's self-confidence to the point where he could stand up to Byrd.

Baseball. Why can't filmmakers understand that if you are going to show a sport, some care needs to go towards the details. Luckily, there aren't many baseball scenes, but a home plate umpire without a protective mask is an unforgivable mistake. Slightly less annoying is the poor technique in Josh's swinging a bat or fielding ground balls.

Overlooking those issues leaves us with pretty interesting performances from Royo, Haggard, Howes and McConaghy. With a better script, this group, and Mr. Quinones' direction, could have elevated the movie to something more than direct to video. In this current state, it still works as an example of perseverance and the importance of solid mentors and a safe home for kids.


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