ANNIHILATION (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: Alex Garland

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the novel ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno & David Gyasi

Going into 2018, ANNIHILATION was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Besides a high concept premise and a very intriguing trailer, the main reason for my excitement came from the presence of director/screenwriter Alex Garland. This man helmed one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade: EX MACHINA. Needless to say, I was more than a little eager to see what his sophomore directorial effort would look like. While I won’t claim that ANNIHILATION is perfect and on the same level as EX MACHINA (for a couple of reasons that will soon become clear), this is a damn fine combination of arthouse storytelling,  thought-provoking science fiction, and disturbing horror!

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling with serious grief. A year ago, her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a top-secret government mission. Lena’s trying to mentally cope with the harsh reality that he might be dead, when a near-comatose Kane randomly shows up at her door. One strange conversation and a nosebleed later…and Kane is whisked away to an unknown government facility. Because they can’t have any witnesses, Lena is held at the facility with him and (in an effort to save her dying husband) volunteers to venture into the strange shimmering area where her husband originally went. Biological nightmares, thick tension, and bizarre Lovecraftian horror ensues.

ANNIHILATION is a strange beast of a film. The trailer sold it as something far more straightforward than it actually is. The narrative is spun in a non-linear fashion that flashes forward to a surviving Lena relating her tale to a group of baffled government officials, shows us what occurred within “The Shimmer,” and also flashes back to Lena’s relationship with her husband. In less talented hands, this approach might have wound up as a cheap cop-out that spoils key moments early on. In Alex Garland’s hands, it’s a brilliant way of piecing together a weird cerebral puzzle for the viewer.

This film nails its smart science-fiction and grisly horror in equal measure. I won’t go into specific details, because one could easily spoil some of the film’s huge twists. The scariest horror bits easily belong to encounters with a heavily mutated bear. There is one sequence in the film that might very well rank in my scariest movie scenes of all-time. You’ll definitely know it when you see it and an aftermath conversation makes that moment ten times more chilling. ANNIHILATION also knows when to keep its monsters in the shadows and when to showcase them in their crazy mutated glory.

This film isn’t a simple creature feature though, because there is other disturbing stuff happening within “The Shimmer.” Some details are given in scientific conversations that confirm worst fears and elaborate on grim theories. The film never feels the need to specifically spell everything out for the audience though and it expects you to use your brain while watching the strange story evolve. ANNIHILATION’s final third contains one of the biggest “holy shit” moments that I’ve seen in recent years. This revelation will likely result in many debates about the film’s open-to-interpretation ending. One of the story’s most terrifying concepts is glimpsed early on (The Shimmer seems to cause memory loss), but is never returned to again. Fully utilizing this concept might have pushed things further into nightmarish territory and made the film even smarter. Sadly, it was completely abandoned for a more straightforward-ish narrative.

As far as the acting goes, things get a bit mixed in the performances. Natalie Portman is good as the main character who’s clearly struggling with grief and all sorts of newfound knowledge. This causes her to react in complicated ways during certain scenarios. Oscar Isaac doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes a big impact in what he delivers. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are serviceable as the supporting scientists. The weakest performance comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh. While some viewers might potentially argue that the bland acting was just in relation to her character, I’d argue that it was just bland acting and this particular character felt wooden as a result of it.

ANNIHILATION nails its storytelling, delivers cool spectacle, and brings forth nightmarish images that will likely flash before my eyes when this movie gets mentioned in casual conversations. The film delivers many amazing qualities (especially in its horror concepts being utterly terrifying and its sci-fi ideas being absolutely brilliant). However, the film occasionally drops the ball in a couple of missed opportunities (one concept is completely abandoned and one key performance is hollow). If you dig strange deliberately paced science-fiction and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, you’ll find a lot of love in ANNIHILATION.

Grade: A-

SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

STAR WARS Episode VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’O & Domhnall Gleeson

The STAR WARS series has experienced many ups-and-downs during its four decades of existence. While most fans consider the original trilogy to be an untouchable trio of classics, I only consider two of them to be great films (Episodes IV and V) and think that Episode VI is a bit of a mess. While most fans also seem to despise the prequel trilogy entirely, I actually enjoy two of those films (Episodes II and III) and consider Episode I to be the worst STAR WARS movie in existence. In recent years, Episode VII was an entertaining blast (even if it was too reminiscent of Episode IV) and ROGUE ONE turned out to be my third favorite films in the franchise. Episode VIII: THE LAST JEDI has garnered lots of mixed reactions. Some fans adore it, some fans hate it, and critics seem to generally love it. Where do I fall? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle-ground. THE LAST JEDI is…okay.

Picking up directly after the events of Episode VII, scavenger-turned-heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and wishes to be trained as a Jedi. Luke is convinced that the Jedi are a dying breed and the universe is doomed, so he’s reluctant to take Rey on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, the Resistance find themselves running from a First Order fleet that can track them through lightspeed. With dwindling fuel supplies and a race-against-time, stormtrooper-turned-ally Finn (John Boyega), determined pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), and maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempt to thwart the First Order’s tracking device…before they all wind up in the deadly clutches of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his emotionally unstable Sith apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

On the positive side of things, LAST JEDI introduces cool new ideas for that mystical energy known as “The Force.” There are “Force” moments (with Rey and Kylo Ren) that manage to develop characters in brave new ways. Daisy Ridley’s Rey isn’t shown to the be all-powerful bad-ass that she was in Episode VII because she’s thrown into a few situations that she can’t get out of alone. These moments deliberately fix the complaint that people had towards her being a “Mary Sue” in Episode VII. At the same time, Kylo Ren is made into a not entirely evil antagonist. Some people have complained that he’s not a scary villain, but I think the fact that you can somewhat sympathize with him and understand his intentions make him scarier…because you understand him.

The script also does things with the character of Luke Skywalker that I appreciated. Mark Hamill hasn’t always been the greatest actor (even in the series that made him famous) and he delivers certain lines in an unconvincing wooden manner. Still, Hamill’s Skywalker is a nice blast from the past. This aged Skywalker has grown jaded with the Jedi, the Sith, the Force, and the universe as a whole. One might argue that he pouts more than Kylo Ren did in the first film. However, I thought it was nice change of pace to see this hero fall from grace and become a reclusive hermit (in a similar fashion to what Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi did after Episode III).

Now, I’ll dive into some of Episode VIII’s negative aspects. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is in this film, but seems to have been included out of an obligation as opposed to a necessity. She also has one of the dumbest scenes in the entire film. It seemed like the script was moving into an extremely ballsy direction (that would have echoed the utter darkness and despair of Episode V), but coped out in the lamest way possible. I’d love to hear some people defend this scene (it happens early on and you’ll definitely know it when you see it), because I had to keep myself from laughing out loud at how ridiculous it looked and what a cheap remedy it was.

The idea of being on the run from the First Order with fuel that’s slowly (but surely) running out is a good one. It’s basically like the space opera version of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The film gets milks tension out of its premise and introduces a subplot that could have been potentially awesome. However, this subplot (featuring Finn, Poe, and newcomer Rose) seems like a waste of time. It’s all totally inconsequential to what matters in this film and feels like we wasted nearly a third of screen time watching it progress towards nothing. Also, the film writes off a few interesting characters in extremely disappointing ways. I won’t dive too deeply into who they are, but they deserved better send-offs than the anti-climactic shrugs they received.

As far as spectacle is concerned, LAST JEDI nails its chases. fights, and battles. There is plenty of entertainment to be found in those sequences and the effects mostly look just as great as you’d expect them to in a huge blockbuster made by one of the biggest movie studios in existence. One fight scene in which Kylo Ren and Rey are placed in the same room sticks out as one of the film’s biggest highlights. Meanwhile, a trip to a casino planet offers a lot of neat creatures and genuinely funny comic relief (although it is ultimately included in the inconsequential subplot). My one complaint with Episode VIII’s spectacle comes in the Porgs…annoying creatures that serve as an excuse to sell toys. At least the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks served a purpose in their films. I can’t say anything pleasant about the Porgs.

STAR WARS Episode VIII: THE LAST JEDI is on the same level as Episode II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES and Episode VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI for me. There are qualities that I really enjoyed about this film. I liked the jaded Luke Skywalker, new aspects of the Force, the spectacular action scenes, and the further development of Rey and Kylo Ren. I didn’t like what the film did with Leia, a disappointing subplot that went absolutely nowhere, and a few characters who have been removed from the series in the lamest ways possible. I’m interested enough to see where Episode IX takes us in two years, but my expectations for Disney’s STAR WARS revival series have been knocked down a peg. Due to the polarizing reactions from fans on this film, it’s safe to say that you’ll just have to see this one to decide for yourself. I thought it was okay…but I expect my STAR WARS films to be better than okay.

Grade: B-

THE PROMISE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including War Atrocities, Violence and Disturbing Images, and for some Sexuality

Directed by: Terry George

Written by: Terry George & Robin Swicord

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Serbedzija & James Cromwell

THE PROMISE is the first major big-budget film to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide. This atrocity was committed by the Turkish government and led to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. For numerous mind-boggling reasons, there are many Armenian Genocide deniers in this world and they did not want this movie to be made. Just look at the film’s current IMDB rating and where a majority of the 1-star votes are coming from (Turkey). Taken on its own cinematic merits, THE PROMISE is a deeply emotional, powerful historical epic. The film is not without some problems, but remains a worthwhile experience all the same.

Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian who’s using his engagement dowry to become a doctor. In the grand city of Constantinople, Mikael develops a crush on Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian. The problem is that Mikael is currently engaged and Ana already has a boyfriend in American news reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). The political climate begins to change in Constantinople though and World War I is rising. Soon, Turks begin to savagely arrest/kill Armenians, using the war as a cover to systematically wipe the Armenian people off the earth. Mikael, Ana, and Chris find themselves caught in the middle of this mass tragedy.

THE PROMISE functions as two different movies. On the one hand, it’s a very effective history lesson about the Armenian Genocide. Many historians have already praised this film for its accuracy and there’s something impressive about that alone. Director/writer Terry George previously directed a powerful genocide drama in HOTEL RWANDA and was a great choice to make another drama about one of the first modern genocides. This film shows the audience just enough for them to realize what is happening to the Armenian people and to what extent. We don’t need to see countless prisoner camps, lots of massacres, and many death marches into the desert. Single moments that surmise each of these horrific factors go a long way and the script wisely doesn’t exploit its sensitive subject matter.

On the other hand, THE PROMISE also tells the story of a love-triangle that happens to take place during the Armenian Genocide. Romance and passion drive the three main characters forward. One might argue that, at certain points, this decently-constructed love story moves things along more than the actual real-life tragedy occurring in the background. This doesn’t happen a lot, but there are corny clichés that occasionally make their way into the mix. The war-based love story angle works, but to a far lesser extent than the fact-based Armenian Genocide drama that’s also being told. The epitome of this complaint comes in one needlessly sad scene that seems to be thrown in because plenty of other historical romances also have this plot point.

Oscar Isaac, one of the best rising actors of his generation, plays Mikael with heartbreaking sincerity. There isn’t a single emotion from him that doesn’t feel genuine, even when the story thrusts him into the path of clichés. Christian Bale plays Chris Myers, a fictional character based on a few journalists that covered the Armenian Genocide. The moments in which Myers risks his life to get the atrocious news to the public are heart-pounding to watch. Still, Bale doesn’t have much believable chemistry with the lovely Charlotte Le Bon (who also starred in last year’s underrated historical thriller ANTHROPOID). Le Bon’s Ana is more of a glorified supporting character in the proceedings. She drives the love-story forward, but Bale and Isaac are equal important in both stories.

THE PROMISE’s overall look feels epic. The story spans across various locations and the cinematography is beautiful. With a 90 million dollar budget, it’s clear that Terry Jones threw every penny he had at the screen. It’s upsetting that this film won’t perform better at the box office, because it wasn’t put out during the Oscar-friendly awards season and instead is being released in April (to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide’s first recorded date). The music in this film is powerful too, but never overtakes the emotion being brought to the screen by the performances and the writing. High production values really help cement this story’s large scope and believable visuals.

THE PROMISE isn’t likely to garner the same amount of critical acclaim and financial success that HOTEL RWANDA or other WWI/WWII dramas have received. The film very much succeeds at being a tragic drama about the Armenian Genocide, but occasionally shoots itself in the foot with the clichéd love triangle plot. THE PROMISE’s performances, visuals, music, and a majority of scenes are great in many respects. However, those darn clichés and occasional missteps into corniness keep the entire film from reaching its full potential. Even with those flaws, THE PROMISE is definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared to feel very depressed afterwards, because World War I also had a Holocaust.

Grade: B+

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

Apocalypse poster

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

Apocalypse 1

The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

Apocalypse 2

The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

Apocalypse 3

Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

Apocalypse 4

Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

Apocalypse 5

I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

Apocalypse 6

APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

Apocalypse 7

On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

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