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A Wicked Monologue on Cuba
20 February 2017
If 'Shaun of the Dead' is an amusement park ride, then 'Juan of the Dead' is a wicked monologue on conditions in Cuba past and present—with zombies. The story takes place in modern Havana, and the political allegory is hilarious. Alexis Díaz de Villegas brilliantly underplays Juan, a veteran of Angola and a certified freeloader. His constant asides about the various periods of difficulty in Cuba are side-splitting. The fact that zombies are referred to as "dissidents" from the US tells you where this movie is coming from.

Don't let the subtitles worry you. The story moves fast as Juan, his best friend and his daughter, along with assorted nutballs, try to survive the coming zombie apocalypse. What's great about Juan is that he is always scheming. He even tries to figure out how to profit from the outbreak.

See this movie if you can. (I was able to find it on Amazon Instant Video.) You may not get all the inside jokes about Cuba, but there are still plenty of laughs. And here's an interesting factoid. According to Box Office Mojo, this movie only showed in one theater in the US and as of this writing (February 2013) has grossed $18,000 domestically. Can that be right? It certainly deserves to earn a lot more.
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Man of Steel (2013)
143 Minutes of Mostly Backstory
20 February 2017
(June 2013.) If you watch the 'Man of Steel' trailer you do get a sense that this thing is going to rock. In fact, it's going to be the best 110 minutes you ever spent. What you end up with, though, is a full bladder and 143 minutes of mostly backstory. Ouch! And don't get me wrong—I love Russell Crowe. But seriously, they could have made a prequel starring Michael Shannon and him, and called it 'Krypton.'

Some scenes just didn't make any sense. Here's Clark Kent as a kid, confused and frightened by his X-ray vision and super-sharp hearing. So he tears out of the classroom and hides in a storage closet. Now the teacher shows up—as well as the entire class! What is this, a field trip? Here's another one. The guy flies around at like a million miles an hour, right? But no matter where he goes, Lois Lane is there. What, did she commandeer the transporter from 'Star Trek'?

And how about this? There's a moment toward the end when General Zod makes a big speech intended to evoke sympathy, I guess, which explains in plain English what drives his behavior. Excuse me but we got that in the first few minutes of the movie. He's devoted to Krypton and will do anything to protect its future. Check! Do we really need the stupid on-the-nose speech?

And while we're at it, why is Superman so frickin' moody all the time? Honestly this thing was just begging for a Lex Luthor as portrayed by Danny DeVito. Or Joe Pesci. Oh and don't let me forget. Superman can't breathe on General Zod's spaceship—he even gets a nosebleed. But he has no problem in space.

Okay, so I didn't see this movie in 3D. We would've had to wait another hour-and-a- half. Best decision I ever made by the way. After that third act, I was exhausted! These guys don't know the meaning of excess. I mean, how many times do I need to see cars flying and spinning. And how about Superman and General Zod hurtling through buildings—through walls and windows—until the buildings are literally cut in two? It was fun the first time—not the fifteenth.

And here's something I really didn't get. Superman, General Zod and his minions are stronger on earth because of differences in gravity or whatever. But with the beating they're taking, how come their costumes don't fall apart? Who made these things, Edna Mode? I mean, if I had just flown two hundred miles an hour through several steel, concrete and glass buildings, wouldn't my cape at least get a snag?

Superman is boring, no question. And Clark Kent, the reporter, doesn't come into the picture until the epilogue. Maybe he'll be clumsy and charming like Christopher Reeve in the next one. Or maybe we'll just get more spinning cars and people breathing in space without oxygen.

I give it a C+. Go see it, though. But if you suffer from motion sickness, bring a barf bag. Or close your eyes for the last thirty minutes. It's like being inside the Zipper with the Joker at the controls.
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Evil Dead (2013)
Ninety Minutes of Nonstop Grand Guignol
20 February 2017
(September 2013.) Okay, let me start off by saying that I am a huge Sam Raimi fan. I enjoyed the original 'Evil Dead' trilogy back in the eighties and early nineties, and I still watch them occasionally. If you'll recall, the first two were super-low budget, and the third was supposed to take place in England, but was shot in Southern California. Hey, I didn't know they had tumbleweeds in England!

Nevertheless, they were gory and loads of fun.

So you don't think I'm about to trash the 'Evil Dead' remake, I liked it, okay? It was intense, gruesome and unrelenting in its depiction of twentysomethings trying to survive against an invisible evil that is unleashed when one of those geniuses reads aloud from the BOOK OF THE DEAD. And, come on, to date it's grossed over $97M worldwide on a budget of around $17M. What's not to like?

But in all the horribly graphic maiming, clubbing and loss-of-limb splatter gore, something was missing for me. Here's a hint: "Gimme some sugar, baby."

Yep, the humor.

The new film is ninety minutes of nonstop Grand Guignol that every lover of horror likes to revel in. But if you'll recall, with some exceptions, the best horror movies are those which are not only violent but funny.

Look, it's like this. If you're going to subject yourself to a root canal without anesthesia, don't you at least want the oral surgeon to crack a few lame jokes during the blood spray? You know who gets it? Rob Zombie. Check out 'House of 1000 Corpses' sometime. Captain Spaulding, anyone? Yeah, humor.

You know who else gets it? Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Which is strange, because those guys show up as producers on this show.

Should you see it? Of course. But if I were you, I'd put on a comedy afterward. I was actually a little queasy during the end credits. But it's tight, well written and well acted. As I said, it's unrelenting. Enjoy the ride, then go back and see the originals. Nobody wields a chainsaw like Bruce Campbell.
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Just a Zhlub and His Girlfriend
20 February 2017
You remember this one, don't you? Lots of laughs seeing the English mixing it up with zombies. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are a joy to watch on screen—so much so that you will never feel the need to sit through 'Paul.' (High-five—I just did you a huge favor.) I particularly enjoyed the moment when they try to kill the zombies by flinging classic record albums at them like Oddjob and his deadly Bowler in 'Goldfinger.'

What starts out as a simple story about a zhlub who wants to get his girlfriend back and sort things out with his mum turns into a comical tale of survival for Shaun and his buddies. And what's more English than the gang ending up at the Winchester, their favorite pub, in a standoff with a ravenous zombie horde?

As of this writing (February 2013), this little gem did around $15.5M worldwide. Not bad for a small independent film. Be sure to look for Penelope Wilton, from 'Downton Abbey,' as Barbara. It's hilarious seeing Isobel Crawley as a dull-eyed zombie.

This movie has some big yucks. Thoroughly enjoyable mayhem with not a lot of deep, soul-searching commentary.
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Lucy (I) (2014)
Asking the Wrong Question
20 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers

(July 2014.) I saw the much-anticipated 'Lucy' last weekend and, before going into my review, I'd like to make a few preliminary comments. First, I am a huge fan of Luc Besson. Ever since 'La Femme Nikita,' I was convinced this guy could do no wrong. Second, I am in love with Scarlett Johansson—don't tell my wife. Third, I'm very aware that no matter what I say here, this movie will make a ton of money. So that said, what's my take?

I was disappointed.

Apparently, 'Lucy' couldn't decide what it wanted to be. On the one hand, it is a smart, funny, bloody sci-fi thriller that doesn't skimp on the action. On the other, it's an vfx- laden treatise on the history of man and his ability to utilize the untapped potential of his brain. Judging by the official trailer, I was promised the former. And I was getting it in all its Luc Besson glory until Lucy finally meets Morgan Freeman's Professor Norman in Paris.

There was an upside to the mindy, spacey stuff that takes us from man's beginnings with the original Lucy to the wonders of the universe. I enjoyed the visual effects— especially when Lucy stops Time with a wave of her hand. Sure, that's cool. And the movie came in at ninety minutes, which meant we weren't saddled with a slow-moving second act. But when the screenwriter stops caring that Lucy is on the lam and an evil Korean guy is after her, and opts instead to focus on her morphing into a frickin' computer made of giant Nutella-like tendrils, that's when you lose me. This is a basic tenet of screen writing. As we've learned over the years, it's the Hero's Journey, people.

So what happened to Lucy? Well, SHE DIDN'T COME BACK! Instead of an arc, we got a trajectory. She never gets to have the final battle with Mr. Jang—that's left to the battle-weary French cop Pierre Del Rio. Once Lucy's brain reaches a hundred percent utilization, she trips off somewhere beyond Time and Space, probably meeting up with an alternate universe version of herself, which is the OS from 'Her.' Seriously? What am I supposed to do with pure energy? I invested a lot of my emotions in this woman, and now she just disappears? And just like Professor Norman, I am left with nothing but a thumb drive with a bunch of ones and zeroes on it. Great. I guess I should start that backup now. Oh wait, she melted all the computers.

The movie already has the elements of a great sci-fi action thriller—bad guys, experimental drugs, exotic locations and a woman who, though she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, starts out dumb as spit when it comes to choosing men. Speaking of bad guys, the only thing better than a Korean bad guy is pairing him with an English bad guy. Bravo, Luc!

As I said before, I was good with everything until the fateful meeting with Professor Norman. Previously, she had only spoken to him by phone or video screen. But once she meets with the good professor and other scientists, we're transported to the Science Channel as Lucy's brain utilization increases and everyone discusses the nature of Time and Space. At this point, I wouldn't have been surprised if everyone adjourned to a nice restaurant and spent the next five hours discussing Sartre or the symbolism behind clowns in horror movies.

Here's my idea for a third act. When Mr. Jang and his army arrive at the university to kill Lucy, she is already starting to lose her powers because the drug is wearing off. That, coupled with a blinding headache and other side effects from the drug, it's a question of whether she can still take out the bad guys before they can kill her. A massive final battle ensues where everything—the university, everything—is destroyed as Lucy battles with Mr. Jang and his men while becoming weaker and weaker.

At a critical moment, Mr. Jang shoots Lucy. Weak and bloody she still manages to send him to hell. Then she collapses as the professor makes his way to her. As the professor examines her, he realizes that she is once again human. How? Well, her irises appear normal. Working fast, he and Del Rio get her to the hospital, where surgeons operate on her and she recovers.

Epilogue. Lucy is standing outside the airport with Del Rio. She's going home to see her parents. He says, "I guess we'll never know what would have happened had you hit a hundred percent." Just then, a toddler drifts into the path of an oncoming taxi, his mother running after him and screaming in French. Suddenly, the taxi stops completely, as if Time itself had stopped. The crying mother retrieves her child as Del Rio stares at Lucy in amazement. "What?" she says, smiling. Then she kisses the cop on the cheek and walks into the terminal. Setup for a sequel? You bet.

Every great movie asks a question at the beginning that must be answered at the end. In 'Lucy,' the question appears to be "what would happen if we could access our whole brain instead of just ten percent?" To me, that's the wrong question. It has nothing to do with a hero's life. What happened to Lucy could have happened to anyone—the conniving boyfriend, the French cop or Professor Norman.

I think a better question is, "Will Lucy become the person she is meant to be?"
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It's Remake Time!
20 February 2017
I got a chance to watch this cult movie (which means it didn't make any money) again after having only seen it once when it first came out, what, twenty years ago? And I'm here to tell you that I enjoyed it even more this time.

There's a lot of wicked humor—not the least of which is provided by the talented John Astin as The Judge. What a hoot! And then there's the inimitable Jeffrey Combs as FBI special agent Milton Dammers. This guy looks like Adolph Hitler minus the moustache and with the edgy charm of Norman Bates on crack. I guess he felt he had set the bar in 'Re-Animator' and was obligated to outdo himself.

Never mind about the plot—this isn't a movie review. Let me point out, though, that this thing has just about everything in it—including a serial killer, a haunted house and time travel. I'm not sure what New Zealanders dream of at night but some of their movies are pretty out there. To that point, Peter Jackson had previously co-written and directed the outrageous 'Dead Alive' (1992). So I guess Universal decided to give him a shot at a "mainstream" movie for them.

And 'The Frighteners' isn't exactly mainstream. First off, it was shot in New Zealand using mostly American actors. Because of that it has a bit of a dreamy, unfamiliar quality to it. Interesting factoid: according to a Wikipedia article, the movie was originally supposed to be directed by Robert Zemeckis, who exec produced. After seeing the wicked 'Death Becomes Her' (1992), I think that wouldn't have been a bad idea.

The only thing I have against this movie is the vfx, which were probably state-of-the- art at the time but whose quality, like that in 'Ghostbusters,' looks cheesy by today's standards. Which leads me to my next point.

There aren't a lot of movies that should be remade IMO but this one could work. And, let's face it, you've got to get Woody Harrelson in there somewhere. CGI is so good now—not to mention IMAX—this thing is begging to be remade.
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Maggie (I) (2015)
A Poignant Family Drama
20 February 2017
You see, the thing about zombies is, they're incredible boring. I'm pretty sure that's why George Romero always chose to marry the "ghouls" in his stories with political commentary. I had to learn this lesson myself with my own horror-thriller trilogy. You cannot expect readers to embrace three novels—nearly three hundred thousand words—if all they have to look forward to is a bunch of drooling braineaters on the loose.

'Maggie' is not a zombie movie—not in the normal sense. Yes, there are zombies in it —in particular, the title character, played by Abigail Breslin. But these are not the undead we are used to. They are victims of a plague that has swept the planet and has made ordinary people sick—SLOWLY. They may no longer eat, but they can still talk and think and love. They don't shuffle, and neither do they move ultra-fast as in World War Z.' They are simply people who are dying.

Against this backdrop you have a father, played beautifully and with quiet strength by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is determined to keep his daughter not only alive, but SAFE for as long as possible. In doing so, he drives away his wife and their two small children, manages to earn the scorn of the police and quite possibly risks his own life. Because when the day comes that Maggie "turns"—and that day will come—he will be forced to either take her to a quarantine facility, where they will end her life with a death cocktail, or deal with her in his own way at home.

If there's one lesson that 'Maggie' teaches us, it's that family and friends matter— especially in times of crisis. This movie didn't have to be about zombies. Wade and his daughter could have ended up exactly in the same situation as a result of worldwide famine, cataclysmic climate change or End Times. It doesn't matter. For me, the poignancy is most present in those quiet moments when Wade and his daughter are sharing a memory or a laugh. It's when he desperately tries to get her to eat something to keep up her strength. And it's when she's starting to turn and he exhorts her to fight and stay human.

'Maggie' bombed at the box office. As of this writing (July 2015), it has earned only $187,112 domestic, according to BoxOfficeMojo. And that's a shame. I think perhaps LionsGate may not have known how best to market this film. I sympathize, though. As soon as you say "zombie" and Arnold Schwarzenegger, audiences are going to have certain expectations. I wouldn't be surprised if they were thinking guns, brains, and lots and lots of blood. Too bad. This movie is not that.

I'm really hoping 'Maggie' does well on video. It deserves an audience—the RIGHT audience.
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Sucks You in Like a Scottish Peat Bog
19 February 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Okay, so I'm late to the game. I had no idea Nordic Noir was a thing. I've been enjoying dark Scandinavian movies like the Millennium Trilogy ('The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' etc.) for years and am thrilled someone decided to actually categorize them. Yeah, thrilled. Anyway, I caught another one on Netflix the other night—a Danish film with what is probably the worst title ever—'The Keeper of Lost Causes.' I don't know, maybe it sounds better in Danish.

Don't let the crappy title fool you, though. This is an outstanding film. And like a Nordic winter, it's cold and spare, with a protagonist who is as dysfunctional and people-averse as they come. I'm not prepared to reveal any spoilers here. Let me just say that, as police procedurals go, this one really stands out. The main character, Carl, is himself dark and unapproachable. But in the best tradition of antiheroes, he is driven to seek out Truth—no matter what that may mean for his languishing career as a homicide detective.

This film features the usual cast of Scandinavian loonies—especially the blonde and creepy Lasse—with a wonderfully empathetic performance by Carl's sidekick, Assad who, when asked why he isn't following orders, claims his Danish isn't that good. Nice touch!

I can highly recommend this film. Though there's little on-screen violence, it's creepy as hell as sucks you in like a Scottish peat bog. And here's the best part: Netflix also has the two 'Department Q' sequels, 'The Absent One' and 'A Conspiracy of Faith,' both which I plan to catch very soon.
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Crimson Peak (2015)
A Movie for Another Time
19 February 2017
Don't get me wrong—I liked this movie from the great Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker I have admired since his amazing 'Pan's Labyrinth.' And similar to that film, 'Crimson Peak' is beautifully crafted, like the china teacup Lucille uses to serve Edith her questionable tea. Unlike del Toro's earlier effort, though, this movie felt distant and terribly formal to me—the Noble Style vs. a rollicking square dance. And, speaking of dances, there was no better scene to illustrate this aloofness than the one in which Thomas waltzes with Edith in front of her father.

To me, the best horror is visceral, not mannered. Referring back to the Hollywood classics of the 1930s, 'Crimson Peak' felt closer to 'Wuthering Heights' than 'Frankenstein.' Sure, we get to see abominable CG apparitions, but even they are distant. They never really engage with Edith in a way that would induce sheer terror in a cultured young woman. Of course, I realize they are there to WARN her, rather than scare her. But still … By now, movie audiences have been exposed to such fare as 'Saw,' 'The Human Centipede' and 'House of 1000 Corpses.' Pretty hardcore stuff, don't you think? To my way of thinking, resurrecting Gothic horror was a bit of a risk for everyone involved. Why did they do it?

I've seen a lot of horror movie devices over the years, but never clay. Usually, desolate places like Cumberland are filled with moors floating in a dense white mist. But clay? This didn't really work for me. Sure, it was red and resembled blood, but …. They never really DID anything with it—even when they had their chance in the cellar, which held huge wooden vats of the stuff. Maybe those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And as long as we're talking about missed opportunities, what about Edith's so-called writing? She managed to bang out one story and never really writes another word during the rest of the film. Okay, the movie is not about her writing, but the story would have worked just as well without it.

'Crimson Peak' did not do well at the box office. As of this writing (April 2016), it has earned $75M worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, with a production budget of $55M. Compare that to Warner Bros.' 2013 hit 'The Conjuring,' which to date has grossed $318M worldwide, with a production budget of $20M. To me, 'Crimson Peak' was a movie for another audience in another time.

In the trailer, the quote "Gorgeous and terrifying—it electrified me" is attributed to Stephen King. Terrifying? Really? Come on, Steve. I can't imagine that anything short of an alligator chewing your fingers off one at a time would be terrifying to you. And certainly not this movie. Disturbing, yes—especially concerning the twisted relationship between Thomas and Lucille. Henry James would be proud. As I said, I liked 'Crimson Peak' but, sadly, I went into the thing wanting to love it.
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Hell on Parade
19 February 2017
For years, I've been telling people that the scariest horror movie I've ever seen is 'The Exorcist.' Well, all that changed after watching 'The Conjuring 2.' All I can say is, Wow! James Wan, who I've been following since his 2004 feature 'Saw,' has shown amazing growth as a purveyor of the demonic. And his understanding of the intrinsic nature of evil from a Catholic perspective rivals that of William Peter Blatty, who I have greatly admired since reading his novel THE EXORCIST, upon which the movie was based.

Now, I enjoyed 'The Conjuring' which, like the sequel, is based on a paranormal case by real-life investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. After seeing that movie, I began researching the Warrens and learned about the case in England, where the story of 'The Conjuring 2' takes place. The fact that these are actual cases and involve demonic possession both intrigues and horrifies me. As a Catholic, I believe in Hell. And I believe that demons like the one featured in 'The Conjuring 2' have walked the earth long before man. Perhaps this is why, for me, the film is so frightening.

Flipping around the dial the other day, I happened across the 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' reboot from 2010. Though well made, it wasn't scary. I know Freddie Kreuger is a fantasy character and, despite the sharpness of his homemade claws, he's just another homicidal killer. And I feel that way about most horror movies involving monsters. 'The Babadook' is a great example. Yes, he's paper-thin and creepy. But that's about it. I was more moved by the exasperated, sleep-deprived Amelia and her lonely, desperate attempts at creating a normal life for her troubled son, Samuel. Conversely, when the demon in 'The Conjuring 2' takes on the form of The Crooked Man, I ended up halfway out of my seat—which is a tribute to the genius of James Wan.

Like most folks, I believe horror movies do well because people like to be scared. It's a rush similar to riding a roller coaster. And when it's over, you're relieved. But every once in a while a film comes along that disturbs the viewer to the core, its aftereffect lingering for days. 'The Conjuring 2' is just such a movie. And an estimated $40M in box office receipts at the time of this writing—this kind of story sells.

Now, I'm not saying that a film like this will turn an atheist into a believer. But it might make those who are on the fence about God, angels and demons think twice before picking up the planchette from that Ouija board collecting dust in the corner with those other games. My advice—just say no.
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Arrival (II) (2016)
Feeling a Part of Something outside Ourselves
19 February 2017
Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It's not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing 'Arrival' the first time the other night, I couldn't wait to put it on again. I've always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being 'Enchanted' and 'Julie & Julia.' She's one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won't recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you ARRIVE at the end, you can SEE.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise's eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren't difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can't fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she's trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people's paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens' purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, 'Arrival' could have turned into 'Independence Day.' Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.
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An Absolute Gem from the Early 1960s
11 February 2012
'How to Murder Your Wife' is an absolute gem from the early 1960s. It's also a time capsule since most people today cannot relate to the mores of that time. The premise of this story is that women are beautiful and conniving while men are "feeble-minded idiots." Consequently women can only be happy in marriage while men can only be happy being single.

To me, this was a perfect vehicle for Jack Lemmon who in the character of Stanley Ford is surprisingly physical. Also it's a great companion to 'Lover Come Back,' 'A Guide for the Married Man' and the darker 'The Apartment'—also starring Jack Lemmon.

I highly recommend this movie. After almost half a century it still holds up.
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