JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence throughout, some Language and brief Nudity

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick

Loads of people seem to gush over 2014’s JOHN WICK. As for me, I think it’s a fun little action movie that’s equal parts silly and cool. Any sequel to any action flick promises to up the stakes and be bigger, bolder, cooler, and more adrenaline-pumping. JOHN WICK: CHAPER 2 has crazy action scenes and further develops its elaborate underworld of guns, hotels, and hired killers. However, the film also encounters pacing issues and goofiness that hinder it as a whole. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is an entertaining romp. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plot picks up four days after the events of the previous film. Former assassin turned bloody avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just recovered his stolen car from a Russian-run chop shop and intends on living out the rest of his days in peace. John’s renewed retirement comes to an abrupt end when he’s visited by mob boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants John to make good on a past deal. With the prospect of one last job until he’s out for good, John Wick returns to kill a target and soon finds himself hunted by pretty much everyone. Lots of bullets, hand-to-hand combat, and craziness follows.

First things first, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 succeeds at what it set out to do. There’s plenty of kick-ass action and the stakes are ridiculously high. At one point, John Wick has pretty much an entire nation of assassins chasing him and decides to become a one man army. It’s friggin’ nuts to watch. The cinematography is slick and the execution of the action is stylish. I cannot express how nice it is to actually see what the hell is happening in an action movie, as opposed to constant shaky-cam that moviegoers are usually bombarded with in lesser modern action efforts. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is just as enjoyable as the first film, meaning that it still suffers from some problems.

CHAPTER 2’s second half is where things really pick up, but its first hour is frequently dull. It’s as if the movie suddenly shifted tones after the previous film’s conclusion to briefly become a brooding hour-long thriller about a reluctant assassin. Great films have been made about similar subject matter, but CHAPTER 2 has long stretches that feature nothing more than John Wick repeating himself to different characters and suiting up for his would-be final hit. Like I said though, the second half is infinitely more enjoyable as the body count reaches crazy levels and bullets begin to fly every which way.

CHAPTER 2’s cast has a few returning faces from the previous film, while also throwing new characters into the mix. Keanu Reeves is just as wooden as he was last time, becoming comically hollow when he tries to express the tragic emotional state of his character (having still lost his wife and her puppy). Still, Keanu knows how to kick ass, execute well-choreographed confrontations (ranging from hand-to-hand, vehicular mayhem, and gun-fu), and perform really cool stunts. Ian McShane is still enjoyable as a hotel owner who abides by a strict set of rules for the killers who inhabit his grounds.

Unfortunately, CHAPTER 2’s interesting new characters are underused or totally wasted throughout the proceedings. This time around, John faces off against a smarmy mob boss and Riccardo Scamarcio’s antagonist pretty much has underlings attack John and taunts him, making for a bit of an underwhelming main baddie. However, the final scene between himself and John further ups the stakes for a potential CHAPTER 3 (ending on a fun cliffhanger). Common plays a vengeance-seeking bodyguard who is sadly regulated to about three scenes, while Laurence Fishburne is having a blast in the cameo-like role of a hobo crime king. Also, Ruby Rose is bad-ass as a mute assassin who has a history with John, though she only appears for three scenes too.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 encounters flaws in wasted potential and uneven pacing. I wish some of the more creative baddies had a bigger presence and the film’s first half is distractingly slow to sit through. However, the action remains fun, while the style reeks of being cool for the sake of being cool. I didn’t go into JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 expecting an action masterpiece and this sequel is on the exact same level of the original, meaning that it’s a fun time for those who want a kick-ass action flick and not much logic. If you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too!

Grade: B

THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual Content and Drug Material

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Directed by: Brad Furman

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

(based on the book THE INFILTRATOR by Robert Mazur)

Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger, Yul Vasquez, Ruben Ochandiano, Juliet Aubrey & Amy Ryan

THE INFILTRATOR doesn’t reinvent the crime-drama, but includes enough positive qualities to make for an interesting viewing to say the least. It’s strange that the true story of the biggest drug bust in American history hasn’t been adapted to the screen before, but now we get to see Bryan Cranston cross over from a small-screen drug kingpin to a big-screen undercover special agent. THE INFILTRATOR’s grainy style adds a sense of gritty realism to an already dark story, but the script has a few clichés you would expect in any undercover cop story. The screenplay’s occasional lapses into ham-fisted predictability are remedied by smart storytelling, rock solid characters, and a rising sense of tension that kept me on the edge of my seat.

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The time is the 1980’s. Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is a U.S. Customs special agent who’s allowed a chance for retirement, but agrees to one last job. Mazur signs up to take down the Colombian cartel, who have been transporting cocaine worth a fortune into the U.S. Needing a new airtight identity, Mazur becomes money launderer “Bob Musella.” Aided by his unhinged partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and undercover “fiancé” Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Mazur begins business with the Colombian cartel and discovers that he may have signed on for much more than he anticipated. Pablo Escobar’s reach goes far beyond the U.S. and he has many financially powerful friends. Bob Mazur must tread carefully amongst these murderers, dealers and criminals, walking a tightrope between exposing himself and facing the deadly consequences or caring too much about some of the people he’s trying to bring down.

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If you go into THE INFILTRATOR expecting tons of action and an ultra-fast pace, you might find yourself disappointed by an intricately detailed true story and deliberate pacing. This isn’t so much a crime-thriller as it is a detailed crime-drama. Bryan Cranston’s Mazur takes center stage, but Leguizamo’s partner Emir also receives a significant amount of screen time. We see Mazur’s slow entrance into the cartel world as he makes new “friends” and contacts, carefully climbing up the ranks in search of bigger fish to fry. Pablo Escobar isn’t a major character in this film. In fact, his presence is an off-screen threat for 99.9% of the running time and he only appears for a one second non-speaking cameo.

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Instead of Escobar facing off against Mazur in person (something that never happened in real-life), we watch Mazur stalk and carefully snare many of Escobar’s corrupt business buddies, top men, and violent enforcers. The scary part is that each of these real-life villains is given a personality other than being a one-note thug or intimidating gangster. The major player of these antagonists is the complex Roberto Alcaino (played wonderfully by Benjamin Bratt, who also starred in TRAFFIC). Roberto is a humanized bad guy to a point where I began to sympathize for him in a lot of ways. He’s definitely not a person worth rooting for, but you can somewhat understand his reason for being in a highly illegal life-damaging business. Roberto is just like any other successful businessman in that he has a family and thrives in a job that he’s good at, but it’s unfortunate that his chosen career involves cold-blooded murder and tons of cocaine.

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While THE INFILTRATOR doesn’t pack itself full of gun fights, car chases, and hammy dialogue between over-the-top villains, it still becomes increasingly suspenseful and indulges in unexpected violence. The movie has many stand-out sequences that floored me for their sheer thrill and suspense factor. One specific scene with John Leguizamo is beyond intense, another has Cranston’s protagonist making a potentially fatal mistake, and yet another sees Mazur’s personal life crossing over into Bob’s fictitious persona…with nail-biting results. A fantastic tracking shot aids the film’s satisfying finale and a nicely chosen 80’s soundtrack adds to the already believable atmosphere. Both of these qualities reminded me of Scorsese’s crime films in very good ways.

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THE INFILTRATOR’s main flaws arrive in the clichéd first act, but the story noticeably picks up the pace and quality as soon as Mazur crossed paths with Roberto. Cranston has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that doesn’t change here. John Leguizamo provides comic relief and muscle in equal measure, receiving two of the film’s most intense moments. Diane Kruger is somewhat underused as Mazur’s fake fiancé, but still has her stand-out scenes. Meanwhile, Bratt rivals Cranston as the film’s best performance.

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Though one might argue that the U.S. war on drugs was a failed fiasco, it has never ceased to give us great entertainment centered around this controversial issue. With a well-executed 80’s atmosphere, stellar performances, and an interesting true story to tell, THE INFILTRATOR more than rises above its clichés and manages to be a bit deeper than you might initially expect. This solid crime-drama humanizes its thugs without ever glorifying them and kept me on the edge of my seat for almost the entire last two-thirds of the running time. If you’re interested in true-crime and want to see Cranston play a role on the opposite side of the law, then I highly recommend checking out THE INFILTRATOR.

Grade: B+

EXPERIMENTER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Michael Almereyda

Written by: Michael Almereyda

Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Edoardo Ballerini, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, John Palladino, Ned Eisenberg, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo & Kellan Lutz

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology class, then you’ve likely heard or read something about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Uncovering a dark side of human nature and generating a massive amount of controversy, Milgram’s findings still bring strong emotions and ponder unanswerable questions to this day. Some people claim that the experiments were skewed and Milgram “forced” people into a potentially traumatizing situation, while others believe that the man was a genius searching to uncover and fix some of humanity’s inherent flaws. I’m very much on the latter side of the fence and have been anticipating this biopic since it first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Currently available on VOD outlets and in select theaters, EXPERIMENTER doesn’t disappoint in being a thoroughly fascinating and odd approach to one of the most important figures of modern psychology.

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Stanley Milgram is a social psychologist who has undertaken an ambitious experiment. Over the course of one year, Milgram brings randomly selected volunteers into a teacher-student scenario in which they are instructed to give electric shocks to another person. What the participants don’t know is that the shocks aren’t really occurring and this whole scenario is an experiment on obedience to authority. Though Milgram expected some shocking results (no pun intended), he wasn’t prepared to find that a startling majority of volunteers willingly kept “shocking” the other participant (an actor in disguise). His research makes big waves in the intellectual community and Milgram becomes the subject of a whole lot of hatred. This movie moves through Milgram’s life including before, during, and after his controversial obedience experiments.

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EXPERIMENTER is told in a non-linear fashion. Though we technically move through points of Milgram’s life in a somewhat chronological order, the script frequently inserts the good doctor himself addressing the viewer. The frequent fourth-wall-breaking Milgram is played wonderfully by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard breathes life into a person who might appear to have sociopathic tendencies to some viewers and deeply humanizes him. Milgram’s understanding of societal norms both place him as an intellectual figure to be admired and a tragic professor for whom some form of unwanted ignorance might be welcomed bliss. Other characters (real people in Milgram’s life) enter and exit the film without much warning, but there is one constant counterpart to Sarsgaard’s Milgram. This comes in the form of Winona Ryder as his wife, Sasha Milgram. Though the Sarsgaard’s psychologist receives far more screen time than her character, Ryder makes the most of her role as someone who deeply cares for Milgram in spite of his flaws.

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Going back to the non-linear narrative, this was a fantastic approach to this story. Not only is a solid chunk of the film dedicated to Milgram performing the obedience experiments and the messy consequences that followed, but we also see other social experiments that he performed throughout his career. Unlike the notorious study he’s become well-known for, these other experiments are much more light-hearted and have a certain humorous feel to them. I was both being entertained and educated by this film to a point where I will now try to pick up on little social queues and body language of strangers around me on a daily basis. A simple study about a “familiar stranger” on a train is pretty fascinating stuff.

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As informative and brilliant as most of this film is, EXPERIMENTER does get a bit too pretentious for its own good (sort of like Milgram himself). We see Sarsgaard walking down a hallway with an elephant following behind him, probably signifying the weight that all of these experiments are taking on him. We also see an introduction to some friends filmed in black-and-white to signify obvious banality of this trip. These artsy scenes were done with good intentions, but border on becoming a tad over-the-top. Still, there are distinct moments where Milgram unwittingly demonstrates the authority that he’s fighting so hard to analyze. These bits are pretty funny, especially seeing as they reveal Milgram is very much the same sort of animal as the rest of us.

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All in all, EXPERIMENTER is a highly fascinating biopic that goes through the life of a man who became known for one hugely controversial study. This film remains true to the life of the renowned psychologist and is aided by a stellar performance from Peter Sarsgaard. Though it can get a little bogged down in its own funk during a couple of brief artsy scenes, EXPERIMENTER is simultaneously entertaining and educational. If you’re remotely interested in the subject matter, then you’re likely to be very happy with this film. I imagine that many future high school and college Psychology classes will be implementing EXPERIMENTER as required viewing.

Grade: A-

AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

Written by: Max Landis

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman & Tony Hale

Sometimes, you walk into a movie knowing precisely what you’re going to get. That was my exact situation with AMERICAN ULTRA. I bought my ticket expecting a batshit insane action-comedy and that’s exactly what I received. Though it’s definitely not for everyone (especially gauging its current low percentage on Rotten Tomatoes), this crazy stoner adventure has a likely chance of going down as a future cult classic. I could see it easily resting next to REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. The film is far from perfect and has its problems, but I found AMERICAN ULTRA to be a blast of entertaining mayhem.

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Mike Howell lives a fairly uninteresting existence. He’s a stoner loser who’s going nowhere and suffers from a crippling number of irrational phobias. The best part of Mike’s life is his long-time stoner girlfriend, Phoebe. One night, a mysterious woman walks into Mike’s workplace and speaks gibberish to him that sound like bad song lyrics. It turns out that these “lyrics” were actually activation code words and Mike is far from your typical stoner. With lots of bad people coming to kill him, Mike finds himself suddenly endowed with a set of deadly skills that he never knew he had. To make it through the night alive, he’ll need some help from Phoebe and a variety of household appliances turned deadly weapons (including a spoon and a dust-pan). Think BOURNE IDENTITY with a BIG LEBOWSKI attitude.

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AMERICAN ULTRA lives up to its expectations as both a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick, but it also serves as an unconventional romance too. The film is entertaining the whole way through. The screenplay also delivers on what audiences going to a movie about an idiotic stoner sleeper agent would expect to see. The cinematography looks great and uses a lot of distinct stylistic touches. I couldn’t help but admire how the film looked as a whole. There’s a constant fast-pace through the first and third acts, but the film drags during the middle. This could be because the middle section has less action than the rest of the story, but I attribute most of the blame to exposition-heavy conversations (enough to temporarily suck me out of the story).

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Jesse Eisenberg is usually hit or miss for me. His geeky shtick can be annoying or charming, depending on the material he’s given. Here, Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the dumb, unconventional action hero. His nervous antics lead to many laughs as his predicament goes from bad to worse. Kristen Stewart, playing Phoebe, manages to be a better romantic lead with far more emotion than many past roles of her career. Connie Briton, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman are side characters who mainly serve to drive the plot forward. Even though their characters are plot devices, they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. Though Topher Grace may have been woefully miscast as a certain super villain in a well-known comic book franchise, he certainly fits the part of asshole pencil-pusher turned radical villain in this film. His smarmy line delivery and pompous facial expressions make you want to punch him during every one of his scenes. So, a job well done on his part. More intimidating than Grace is Walton Goggins as the simultaneously scary and funny Laugher (one of Grace’s main henchmen). John Leguizamo’s brief turn as a drug dealer is also hilarious, even tough he’s underused.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome the action scenes are in AMERICAN ULTRA. I was shocked at how well-executed these sequences were. Aside from using enough blood to fill a Tarantino shootout, ULTRA gets ultra-creative (sorry, I had to say that) in its violence. We see normal household objects transformed into lethal weapons and these crazy combinations never get old. A sequence in the final third also comes off like the a cross between the KINGSMAN‘s now famous (or infamous) church scene and the final showdown in THE EQUALIZER. Blood splatters all over the place, but never to a sickening degree. None of this is meant to be taken seriously and the movie uses that to its comedic advantage.

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Slight pacing issues aside, I really enjoyed AMERICAN ULTRA. This is precisely the sort of film that might very well become a cult classic in the near future. The combination of a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick are undeniably appealing for certain crowds. It helps that fun performances and palpable creativity are also thrown into the mix as well. AMERICAN ULTRA is a stoner-centric romantic-action-comedy that delivers on its strange premise.

Grade: B

SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action, mild Language and Sensuality

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Directed by: Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel

Written by: Parker Bennett, Terry Runte & Ed Solomon

(based on the SUPER MARIO BROS. video game)

Starring: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis, Fisher Stevens, Richard Edson, Fiona Shaw & Mojo Nixon

Most movies based on video games suck. This has been apparent from the early 90’s when audiences were hit with a trio of suckage in the form of MORTAL KOMBAT, STREET FIGHTER, and… SUPER MARIO BROS! Now, this 1985 Nintendo property doesn’t exactly lend itself well to the cinematic format to begin with. The original video game had a thin plot and a whole lot of trippy images that would be difficult to translate onto film. Well, the two directors and three screenwriters don’t seem to have even tried much as SUPER MARIO BROS. feels like a group of a Nintendo characters were thrown into a D-grade BLADE RUNNER/BRAZIL-esque universe. This 1993 adaptation has earned a reputation in cinematic history as a much reviled take on a beloved video game. It pretty much lives up to those standards as one of the worst video game adaptations ever made, which are strong words considering its competition.

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Mario and Luigi are a pair of hapless plumbers living in New York City. After running across a strange portal under the city streets, these “brothers” (actually, father and adopted son) wind up in an alternate dimension where humans have evolved from dinosaurs. With Luigi going head over heels for damsel-in-distress Daisy and Mario trying to find a way back home safely, the two plumbers run afoul of King Koopa (the dictator of this universe). With the fate of the world in their hands and strange creatures on their tail, Mario and Luigi must find a sacred relic, save the princess, and get back to New York in one piece.

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I don’t think it’s much of a shocker to say that the acting is pretty bad in this film. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo have given solid performances in various projects, but they’re horribly unconvincing as the famous pair of Italian-American plumbers. Leguizamo plays Luigi as a clueless romantic who doesn’t really do much, not that he’s given much to do. Hoskins plays up Mario as a rowdy, irritable New Yorker who’s either yelling in anger or screaming in terror. This is not the Mario that we all grew up with and wouldn’t be a compelling character even if the video games didn’t exist. On the completely embarrassing side of things, Dennis Hopper is godawful as King Koopa. He seems almost to be playing the role of this villain as a toned-down, kid-friendly version of Frank from BLUE VELVET. With a spiky haircut and lame one-liners, Koopa isn’t the least bit enjoyable to watch. It certainly doesn’t help any of these actors when the comic relief is so unfunny.

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Poor acting aside, there are still many terrible qualities to point out in SUPER MARIO BROS. The soundtrack seems to only use four or five different tunes throughout the entire film. One irritating jingle is used to the point of being downright painful. The BRAZIL-esque setting almost seems like an already-written rejected studio script just threw in these Nintendo characters to get itself produced. Ever think you’d see Mario or Luigi driving through a web of fungus? How about the plumber duo surfing down a frozen pipeline with two dinosaurs chasing them? I know all of us were pining to see Mario try to seduce a dino-woman named Big Bertha? The truth is that nobody wanted to see any of these things and those are just a few examples of many WTF moments throughout. There’s also a huge cliffhanger ending that’s begging for a sequel that was never made (thanks to this film tanking at the box office and horrible word-of-mouth).

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SUPER MARIO BROS. manages to be even more offensive to the viewer when it tries to incorporate elements from the game in really stupid ways. Mario and Luigi defeated enemies by jumping on them in the game, so why not give them giant metal boots that launch them into the air in this movie. The Goombas look nothing like the mushroom monsters that we all know and love, but rather like shrunken headed dinosaurs wearing giant trench coats. Yoshi pops up for a quick cameo and frighteningly resembles a Velociraptor from JURASSIC PARK. Toad is also included in the form of a hippie protestor who somehow manages to be just as annoying as the Toad in the video games (at least, the filmmakers got that part right). The only nice thing I can say about SUPER MARIO BROS. is that the Bob-Omb looks similar to the ones in the game.

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Uwe Boll didn’t start making terrible video game adaptations until 2003 with HOUSE OF THE DEAD, but there’s a valid conspiracy theory in thinking that he put on a disguise, snuck into Hollywood, and sabotaged SUPER MARIO BROS. Taken as an original flick, it’s stupid, unfunny, rather dull and doesn’t make a lick of sense. Taken as an adaptation of the video game franchise, those complaints are amplified with insult to injury. SUPER MARIO BROS. more than lives up to its reputation as one of the most infuriating movies ever made. There’s not a good quality to be found in this whole film! I wish Mario would jump on the heads of everyone involved with the making of this garbage.

Grade: F

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