Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty got a lot of flak from Washington upon release. Members of the senate accused the makers of misleading the audience by depicting excess torture on screen compared to what actually happened in the decade long hunt for Bin Laden.

Hmm. Is that true? Was the search for Osama a non-violent one then? Or there was some violence, but not as much? How much? Whose story is to be believed? While politics has a reputation for being dirty… movies are nothing but drama… politicians and their statements are not to be blindly trusted… but movie makers are in the very business of making up stories!!

Between the CIA and the ISI and the bureaucrats and the diplomats we may never know the whole truth… But somehow, my recollection of news reports from back then about the torture techniques used by interrogators is much more disturbing than what was shown in the movie.

The documentary style cinematography/editing of the movie  with relatively new actors who have not yet been typecast, work perfectly in unison towards keeping the experience ‘real’. As events unfold in the movie, your mind will stitch together the scattered images you’ve come across on media in the last ten years… Abu Ghraib prison, waterboarding, dog collar tortures, the change of politics in Washington midway through all this and more.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ I thought was a catchy phrase for a movie title. In military terms means half hour past midnight. It refers to the time of the day Osama compound in Pakistan was raided on May 2, 2011. The 25 minute climax of the movie is believed to be the approximate time taken by US Navy SEALs on site from start to finish.

The movie tells the story of Maya, a sharp CIA officer, who maintains her focus through several years of hardship and frustration in trying to find Bin Laden. And Kathryn Bigelow, the 61 year old director, is the first woman to have won the Academy Award for best director in 80 year history of the Oscars (for Hurt Locker). It’s not hard to see how the story of the directors life is inseparable from the story of the protagonist in the movie. Its the story of a strong determined woman, with an unshakeable belief in her mission and herself, fighting it out in a man’s world and will not take no for an answer…

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Django Unchained

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When I googled Django Unchained, the first thing that caught my attention was the length of the movie. 2 hours and 45 minutes!!

Production houses and film trade analysts look at movies that exceed the 2 hour mark as a high risk investment because not only do they have to spend more money in making a longer movie, they earn less upon it’s release because… longer the movie… fewer the number of daily screenings. It often totals to losses in several million dollars if the movie were not to do well. Also, audience of today has a shorter attention span. We are probably used to the unspoken 2 hour rule when we enter a movie hall. A duration like this makes us wonder if we’ll be able to sit through it. After all, what could be worse than a bad movie?… a LONG bad movie!

Well, after having watched it…. I can say that Django Unchained does not have to worry about any of this. Tarantino‘s longest film till date, leaves both the parties craving for more.

Without revealing spoilers or going too much into the twists, here’s the synopsis…

Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), is a dentist of German descent who speaks politically correct textbook English. His speech, in fact, sounds more formal than the lingo used in corporate emails today. He’s a good guy but he also kills people for a living. Meaning, he has given up his ‘noble’ profession for the more lucrative profession of.. bounty hunting!

He’s looking for his new bounty but he does not know what these crooks look like. That’s where he will need someone’s help. Some one who can identify them for him. Enter Django (Jamie Foxx), the black slave, who previously worked for them. The doc is ahead of his times not only in his use of language but also in him not subscribing to the practice of slavery. But he has to engage in slave trade and use Django if he wants to get his bounty. He admits that he feels guilty doing so, but makes a pact to set him free after the job is done.

Thats how a slave ‘earns’ his freedom and a friend. Now Django Freeman (love the last name!) must go free his beautiful wife (Kerry Washington) from the charming and crazy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) of Mississippi. The doc decides to help his friend by accompanying him.

Tarantino’s new movie is beautifully written and shot. All the actors do justice to their characters and story, including Dana Gourrier, David Steen and Walton Goggins who hardly have any dedicated screen time. The story is set in the south where most of T’s movies are, probably because he grew up in that part of the country. It’s very wordy to be filed under a ‘Sphagetti Western’, a genre which traditionally brings the silent image of a cringing man wearing a cowboy hat sitting on a horse and chewing on a thin cigar at the angle of his mouth. The screenplay of Django is methodical. Characters draw you into interesting and engaging conversations while Tarantino seamlessly advances the story reel in the background. The way the background score effectively augmented the story experience reminded me of my all time favorite T movie ‘Pulp Fiction‘.

The best part about the movie is that you are able to convincingly romanticize with the idea that a story like this might have actually taken place… sparking the start of revolution which eventually led to slavery being abolished in the US.

Go watch Django. The D is silent. The experience is not.

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Skyfall

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James Bond as a character falls somewhere in between a superhero and a smart sheriff.

While superheroes require you to suspend your belief of realty, Bond asks you keep it intact. Unlike the sheriff, he is not a part of the system, he is behind it. He’s secretive. He’s charming. Not so much a man of faith as he is of science and logic. He has his weaknesses… but his loyalty is never compromised. He is smartphone in a world full of flip phones… but he’s as much flesh and blood as anyone else. Which is why James is still so popular… 50 years and 23 movies later.

Personally, I watch Bond movies to check out his latest gadgets (and girls).. of course within the structure of a gripping story. Of these, ‘Skyfall‘ fails at least on two fronts.

Although one can see the relevance of how this plot connects Bond’s past, present and future, the overall treatment of the subject is poor and the attention to detail is missing. As if this project was a rush-rush after MGM studios’ (who owns the Bond franchise) filing for bankruptcy.

STORY: For example, Bond is being re-evaluated to see if he’s fit for the job. On the test, he fails in all sections… physical, mental and emotional. He’s way off-target in shooting practice, can’t do enough pull ups, has emotion and addiction issues. In the next ten minutes, as if someone used that time to restore him back to factory settings, he is sprinting and shooting without any DT’s  or temper tantrums. The movie is abundantly filled with  “seen it all before”.… chasing a baddie in the tubes… fighting on train tops… motor bike chases… blowing buildings… and some more buildings…

GADGETS: After having spent $ 200 million on the razzle dazzle, the best gizmo the studios came up with is a hand gun which fires only if it recognizes Bond’s palm print around the grip. Oh! there’s one more, a tiny radio transmitter Bond carries in his pocket for the Military intelligence folks track his location. An iPhone app would’ve sufficed, don’t you think? (This app wants to access your location… Allow.. done!)

GIRLS: Adele‘s title track is enchanting and she is by far the best bond girl in a long time.  The on screen girls… well, they’re good too and they try to bond well with the Bond and the result is a sort of a chemistry lesson. Talking of women, if it were not for our old lady Judy Dench, you might intermittently forget you’re watching a Bond film. Basically, once you’ve met the ‘good guy gone bad’ Raoul/Tiago and you know why he’s doing what he’s doing you can leave the movie hall and go do other important things you may have pending. But if you’re jobless like me and do stay till the end, you get the feel you’re watching an old western.

All in all… ‘Skyfall’ tries to substitute spectacle for substance… and it doesn’t work.

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Ek tha Tiger

1. Ek tha Tiger?
When a dying ‘Veer Zara’ mammal undergoes an acute desi mutation of ‘Bourne’ nature, an ‘Ek tha tiger‘ species is born.

2. There’s something weird about the trailer. Please help me understand.
Well, the whole movie is weird as hell. So whatever you are referring to in the trailer, consider it a gentle warning of worse things that can happen to you if you don’t back off. However, since you asked I’ll share the weirdest thing with you. The movie is about intelligence agents and there is absolutely no intelligence in the plot. There’s not one smart thing they do. In fact, you feel the urge to help them find the restroom at times.

3. Come on. You’re exaggerating. Is it that bad? What guidance could you possibly provide to an intelligence agent?
I personally walked up to the screen several times in three hours and tried telling the hero that he should focus on preventing a missile attack to our country and not waste time singing songs and dancing, but he paid no heed to my advise and continued having a good time chatting with a tall fair and relatively well nourished woman.

4. Hmm. Did this guy seem like he had anything to offer at all?
Yeah. At first it was not obvious, but as time went by, I did notice a couple talents in him. Like the guy was globe trotting with his lady friend when it did not seem like he had enough money. But he didn’t seem too worried about it. I never caught him budgeting things or looking for cheap cars or hotel deals on hotwire. Not once. In fact, he’d do just the opposite. He’d book flights at the last minute and fly first class… rented open top jeeps… and all of this in prime vacation spots. He was something, I tell ya.

5. You said there were a ‘couple talents’. What was the other one.
Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda got dreamy elaborating that part. Yeah. The other talent, is more special and important. Maybe I should have mentioned that first. I swear, I have not seen any other spy do this. So this guy, our hero, he cares about you. Like when there’s a fight and the baddies are about to kill him, he waits till the lat minute and does something really clever. Umm.. like maybe tossing currency notes up into the air in the middle of a chaotic bazaar. And when everybody and their camel starts jumping up and down to grab the money, the baddies can’t get a proper aim at him. But that’s not what I am referring to as talent. It’s what he does after this. He intensely looks into the camera, he finds you sitting there in the audience with your combo popcorn and soda, smiles and covers his head with a shawl. (Please see picture above) Then starts walking towards you, passionately… in slow motion. Boss, I have seen Bonds and Bournes of the world in such situations and they have disappeared in a flash. Leaving us, the audience worried as hell. Selfish bastards. Not this guy. No sir. He makes sure you don’t lose contact.

6. I don’t care about your review. You are too negative. I am going to watch the movie anyways…
On Zee or Doordarshan? (Although you think you’ve understood the joke, you don’t… until you have watched the movie)

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The Dark Knight Rises

I would have started out this review by saying whether it does or does not contain spoilers, if I knew how to define the territory of a spoiler. For some, it’s what the word means in a traditional way, that the writer disclosed a key dramatic event in the plot and spoiled the suspense. And for some others, it’s as much as writing… the movie was good or not good.

I guess the second category of people define the word spoiler a bit differently. As in, the review having spoiled their mood or enthusiasm. I’m not kidding. It’s true! This group very much exists and in quantities larger than you would like to believe. A critic received death threats for posting his opinion about TDKR being not so great. Click on this link and check it out for yourself.

Take a deep breath and relax. The guy lived and so did the people who threatened him. And everybody went back to work the next day with their lunch box. The reactions were so strong because the stakes were higher than ever. For everybody… Warner Bros, Nolan and his huge fan base. It’s his longest movie (164 minutes) till date. It’s also his most expensive film ($250 million) so far. It’s the ‘epic conclusion’ of Batman series he started back in 2005. People were expecting nothing short of a miracle for a movie… and along comes a review like that? Well… there was going to be some emotional heat and head-butting.

One of the criticisms by this person was that Nolan did not stay true to the comic. I’ve read a Batman comic here and there, but I am not so familiar with details as to comment on it. One thing I do know is that a movie can never be as good as literature, if it’s very large in volume. Many Bat comic writers over the years created several different characters who gang up with or against one another and have complex past associations and future connections. It’s a universe of it’s own. What you seen on screen, I believe, is Nolan’s modified version of Batman. Well, we the popcorn munching audience, don’t care as much about loyalty to the origin as much we do about getting to watch good, entertaining cinema… No? We’re happy if you put Batman in Iraq. Maybe he’ll figure out what’s actually going on.

TDKR’s background score is awesome and the visuals are great. The image of a masked man (Batman) fighting another masked man (Bane). A big plane preying on a small plane. The ground of a football stadium collapsing in the middle of a game. The view of high rises from below forms the shape of a bat. The broken bat mask. Excellent. Full points!

The pace of the movie is good and there are a lot of clever twists and turns in the plot. But I think, Nolan, in this last part did end up with a little bit more on his plate than he should’ve. Having a lot of characters often leads to screen crowding and not being able to do justice to all of them. Personally I would have lived through the series just fine if I was not introduced to Cat Woman. I don’t think the character of Miranda Tate added much either. But I guess you can’t not have estrogen around a Superhero. So, the ladies got to keep their jobs.

A few other things I found hard to digest… Batman’s back is broken and a vertebra protrudes out. It’s pushed back in by a cell mate and he’s back to doing push ups in couple days… Other inmates try getting out of prison and die from injuries, but Batman survives two such failures without a fracture, not even a bruise… After tasting delicious gizmo like the tumbler, batpod and bat flying machine, the climax between Batman and Bane is a good old fist fight… Batman’s million dollar suit is bulletproof but yields to a small retractable knife… And yet again, a superhero movie couldn’t stay away from a nuclear weapon climax. You wonder if Nolan was getting tired of Batman and wanted a break.

The best part in TDKR/Batman series were the conversations between characters. By design, the audience obviously will always identify with the hero. But to get the viewers to make sense of even what the baddies have to say is a feat. We’ve all had a frustrated thought like Ra’s Al Ghul (Batman Begins)… “Crime can not be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding”. And witnessed instances in our lives where the Joker’s lines (Dark Knight) has proved right… “You’ll see, when the chips are down these uh… ‘civilized’ people… they’ll eat each other”. Or admire Bane’s noble statement… “It does not matter who we are (in this world). What matters is our plan”.  These lines instantly establish a connection with the audience. We’re intrigued. Is it because there’s a part of us in them? We question our understanding of good and bad to slowly find ourselves in a dilemma of whose side to take. The confusion is solved by the character that wins in the end. The one who gives humanity and hope a chance, despite all of life’s imperfections. And rightly so.

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An experience

Although I consider myself a certified movie buff, I rarely watch movies on the first day of release. I used to, when I was in college but now things are different. I am older. I have less of that mad energy. I have a full time job.  And on my days off, I have a high maintenance wife to entertain.

Amidst all this… who’s got the time to plan?
You catch a flick when you can
An exception to this rule being,
A film by Christopher Nolan.

I had been impatiently waiting to watch The Dark Knight Rises, especially for the last few weeks. The trailers looked great and the first two parts of the trilogy were still fresh in my mind. If you look at it this way, TDKR is the climax of the 9 hour long Batman story by Nolan. Yes, climaxes are very important. And for one of this magnitude, I wanted to experience it first day first show… with a fresh mind, with no pre-conceived notions.

I guess you could, but it’s harder to do this even one day after release. You might resist the urge to read a review but end up overhearing someone’s opinion of the movie or say accidentally seeing a rating online when you’re looking for showtimes. The worst, for an unsuspecting victim, is a Facebook post. All this is making me wonder, in all fairness, if I should be even writing this review? I’ll let you choose if you want to read further. Maybe, you’re more balanced about such things.

So, there I was, on the day of release, at the IMAX in Universal studios, Orlando. I know it’s a bit much, but I got there 11:30 for the 13:00 show to make sure I get a good spot. And what do you know? There were already 20 people ahead of me in line. I tell you, in this world it’s not even easy to be the craziest. Even there you have competition! As the showtime neared hundreds of people joined the line behind me. Finally, 45 minutes later we were let in.. After cozying in (btw, I did find a great seat) and warming up with some trailers and buttered popcorn it was time for the movie to begin.

(Click here for the movie review of The Dark Knight Rises )

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Chris Nolan

I’ll tell you what every good filmmaker wants… every good filmmaker wants two things.

Number one, they want to stay true to their creative DNA. To be able to make the kind of cinema they believe in. The kind, which when they look back upon arouses feelings of inspiration, pride, originality, art, challenge etc etc… And the other thing, arguably equally important if not more… is for that movie to set the cash counters ringing.

You would agree that while the former makes them want to keep doing what they’re doing… the latter needs to happen so they can keep doing it. You would also agree that Chris Nolan, with his 8 movies, has so far managed to get both things, every single time.

When someone achieves a consistency like that you want to know more. How is he able to do it? Is he truly gifted? Is it hard work? Is there a reproducible method? Are there some common traits… is there a pattern… a theme ?

These are just a few things that caught my attention…

Nolan makes mind bending movies. But calling his movies psychological thrillers is clearly injustice. He delves much deeper than the genre requires. In other words… in his movies, your mind is the scene of crime…. Addiction (Following),  Memory (Memento), Sleep (Insomnia) and Dreams (Inception)…. My personal favorite is Memento. What a movie! I still can’t believe that it did not win the academy award for best screenplay that year. The black & white scenes playing forward alternates with story in color going backwards… fantastic!… I must have seen Memento more than ten times. And each time I have found or understood something I missed the previous time.

Another Nolan trait is a dead woman. She’s responsible  for the hero’s situation and drives his actions. She’s a powerful memory but is missing from his present. In Following, Memento, Dark Knight and Inception… she dies.

I suspect Chris loves teasing his audience. After getting you emotionally involved in an intensely psychoactive situation, towards the end of the movie when you think you’ve understood the premise, he hints at another possibility. He points to a mind bending alternative. And then as you’re re-considering things, he ends the movie, leaves everything to your interpretation and goes home. For example, in Memento, is Leonard a victim or a serial killer? In Inception, does Cobb make it home in the end? You think you know the answer. Let me just tell you as a good friend, it’s the answer you’ve chosen for yourself.

After all this adulation… my predominant feeling for Christopher Nolan is that of genuine concern. The kind that comes with a strong protective instinct. Why? you ask…

Nolan is not the first. Hitchcock, DePalma, Lucas, Zemeckis and Spielberg… they’ve have all been worshiped. The audience held their breath and studios raised the bar for their next movie. And then, there’s one human mistake they all made. They took a leap of creative faith. Also known in the real world as their ‘megaflop movie’. After which everyone wrote them off and started looking for the new invincible kid in town.

It was not by any means the end of things for them. They kept going. It just meant less freedom and more ‘supervision’. Atleast for a while. For instance, in Nolan’s case it would mean that the studios ask him not to experiment too much and stick to whatever has worked till now… let’s say a variant of Inception. How about ‘Inception returns’? This would instantly kill the number one for him…. his creative DNA. And that in turn, automatically translate into not getting number two… a.k.a. moolah. Wouldn’t it be a terribly sad day when a filmmaker like Nolan doesn’t have either of the things a good filmmaker wants?

I guess this thought crossed my mind because his 9th movie is coming out next week. The Dark Knight Rises. Go watch it with an open heart and forgive him if he makes mistakes (Would you… if it turned out to be a romantic comedy?)

Much love, to good filmmaking.

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Pi

Recently I watched Pi, Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film. Its a psychological thriller about a guy named Max.

Max is Jewish. He lives in NYC and is somewhere in his 30s. A number theorist by profession. He’s lonely or maybe he prefers to be alone. The guy seems nice but you sense there’s something strange about him. He lets you into his world but slowly… bit by bit you get to know him with his voiceovers which are his ‘notes to self’. You hear him say stuff like… he stared into the sun when he was six years old till there was white out and when he got back to his senses, things were not the same. He believes that everything in nature has patterns and can be explained by Mathematics.

I won’t spoil the fun for you, if you plan to watch the film.

More than the story, I think it’s Aronofsky’s choice of concepts and his style of direction that deserves an applause.  The thrill is palpable, especially when you are with Max and he has one of his migraine attacks. Certain shots are just trademark Aronofsky. Even if you hadn’t cared to look at the credits in Pi and you happened to watch Requiem for a Dream, which is his next movie, I am sure you’d have put two and two together and had an Aha! moment.

The background score by Clint Mansell is mind blowing. It complements the whole experience. No, it augments it. Its no wonder that both their careers took off after this movie and they continue to work together as a team till this day (My personal favorite from this duo is Black Swan)

The best thing about psychological thrillers is that they draw you in with a relatable premise and then get you entangled and amazed in the complexities of your own mind. And leave you there. For however long. It’s like playing hide and seek in a mansion with mirrors for walls. You’ll go dizzy trying to figure things out.

It’s definitely my most favorite genre, what’s yours?

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Moonrise Kingdom

So,  I did watch Moonrise Kingdom. Rotten tomatoes rated it 94%. IMDB gave it 8/10. My opinion? I thought, it’s not for everybody.

But a Wes Anderson movie can be all of the above at the same time, don’t you think? Guy chose philosophy as a major, took to full time writing after college, got inspired by Satyajit Ray and French cinema… He belongs to a different category. Not better or holier. Just different.

So, the outline of the story is… A lonely pipe smoking 12 year old orphan boy scout falls in love with a lonely novel reading 12 year old girl going through an identity crisis. He has no family and she has a dysfunctional one. They run away from home and they’re brought back. They run away again… and again they’re brought back. That’s it? Yep. That’s it.

Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel and Frances McDormand would be the natural choices for an Anderson genre,  although it was a pleasant surprise to see Bruce Willis. The dialogue and acting is indigenous. It’s a comedy but no one’s trying to make you laugh… and I don’t mean that phrase in a regular way… let me put it like this… there are NO ‘jokes’ in the lines. The situation itself… is the joke. It’s a satire on the social problems of 1965. And it’s sad, but true, that we have not changed.

You’re not impressed. Why should I watch the movie, you ask…

Well, the look of the film is awesome. Does that count? A beautiful summer in Rhode Island. There is no clutter on the canvas. There’s nothing you see which is not meant to be seen. Every shot looks like a 1960′s professional Kodak photograph. Perfect proportions of green/yellow/khaki colors. It’s a very… controlled experience, if you will. The trait of a perfectionist… by the way, a totally unrelated side note, don’t you think it’s hard to draw the line between a never ending quest for perfectionism and early traits of obsessive compulsive disorder?

There’s hardly any background music except the symphonies by Benjamin Britten, which reminded me of Stanley Kubrick‘s usage of Beethoven for A Clockwork Orange.

This style of movie making has it’s connoisseurs. It’s not so much for an international audience, I think, as it is for someone native plus has a prior affinity to this kind of cinema. It’s not going to be a blockbuster, but not because it’s not well made. It’s weird and eccentric in a sweet way. You can tell, the person who made the movie deeply cares about his work.

As to why the name ‘Moonrise Kingdom’… well, you’ll have to watch the movie for that.

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Sequel Cancer

Google the movies that are playing in town right now and I bet you, you’ll find at least a few of these… ‘franchise films’.

Sequels, prequels, remakes, re-boots etc all of them pretty much fall in the same category. Meaning, you definitely know the genre, you probably already know the main characters (except the new baddie being wheeled in every time), you pretty much know the entire story after having watched the trailer and in all likelihood you will see a slightly different version of the same product, very soon.

Doesn’t that sound boring? You bet, it does. Would it surprise you then, if I told you that since 1999, except Avatar, every single year the highest grossing movie worldwide has been a franchise movie? Here’s the list

Lord of the rings novel series written in 1930s, nicely made into a movie trilogy… very good. Harry Potter… each movie following the release of the corresponding novel… even better experience. These are beautiful works of fiction and fantasy which inspire the directors soul and seduce their visual storytelling talent. I completely agree with you,  it would be hard to put all that content into one. We needed (and craved for) those sequels.

But how about this? There’s a total of 7 Hollywood Superman movies so far. In the last 2 decades itself, Warner Bros have produced 7 Batman movies. Columbia pictures is slightly ahead with 4 movies made on Spiderman in the last ten years and they’re reopening the franchise this summer! But the winner of this superhero per studio race is Paramount pictures, who by 2013, will have given us 4 Iron Man movies in the last 5 years. And despite so much collective destruction of evil by the superheroes, the world still has problems.

Should I even bother you with the counts of how many Paranormal activity, Hangover, MIB, Final destination, Mummy, Journey, Ice Age, Madagascar, Halloween, Nightmare, Pirates, Scream, Saw, Step up, American pie, Fast&Furious etc etc have come out? In the year 2011 alone, 28 sequels were released and most were profitable ventures.

With 7 billion people on the planet, from nearly 250 countries and about 1500 different cultures, I would imagine the world has a LOT of interesting, untold stories.

Go watch the organic Moonrise Kingdom this weekend.

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