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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Be careful with Stefano Sollima and Taylor Sheridan’s latest blockbuster, “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”.

It’s sinister, seductive relevance carries a sobering slap-in-the-face wake-up call or toxic political venom. It’s your choice. But either way you lean with the theme, the relevance and mastery of this knock-out sequel make it a rare case of a follow-on achieving everything its predecessor did, and maybe even more.

Chalk it up to timing and headlines, but “Sicario, Day of the Soldato” is laser-guided relevant with weighty themes of Mexican immigration and political subversion. The real-world significance cause the movie to do something few films do now: you actually care about the story.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldato” follows the original 2015 “Sicario” with much of the same cast. Gone are character Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and Icelandic composer and Oscar winner Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Director Stefano Sollima.

New to “Soldato” are Isabela Reyes (16-year old actress Isabela Moner) and the ominous, throbbing soundtrack strains of Hildur Guðnadóttir (say “GWON-A-doh-ter). Also from Iceland, Guðnadóttir was previously a classical cellist who is relatively new to bigtime soundtracks. This is her break-out moment. The two opening notes from her main theme to the movie are resonant and foreboding. It’s the “Jaws” theme for the Mexican border.

Character Isabela Reyes, a youthful character forced into the story, replaces the role of Kate Mercer from the previous film. In the original “Sicario”, Kate Mercer was symbolic of all of America struggling to understand the drug cartels, immigration issues and complex injustices surrounding the U.S./Mexico border. In “Soldato”, the juvenile Isabella Reyes performs a similar function but from a different perspective. She never had youthful innocence, is resigned to a violent life and is calloused and durable. While Kate Mercer represented the U.S. relationship to the border issues, Isabella Reyes serves as a character metaphor for all of Mexico trying to understand the border crisis, and also falling victim to it.

Young actress Isabela Moner’s masterful portrayal of character Isabela Reyes is the dramatic delivery tool to “Soldato”.

There is a complex lineage to the plot of “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”. The genetics of the story can be traced back directly to master story mechanic Tom Clancy. Clancy’s 2011 book Against All Enemies followed the path of Middle Eastern terrorism to central America and up to the United States across the Mexican border. That theme was also woven into the 2012 film “Act of Valor”. While this theme could have been structural to “Soldato”, it is, in reality, the only accessory to the main plot. The idea of terrorism entering the U.S. through illegal Mexican immigration is presented, and then seemingly abandoned in the film. If “Soldato” has a singular shortcoming, that is it. But this relevant footnote interlocks on the plot fairly smoothly.

An integral part of both “Sicario” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldato” are their remarkable thematic economy. There is no fluff. It’s all meat. As a result of this tight plot and orderly story you can never look away. Every scene matters, every detail engages. While the writing and organization of the theme facilitate this thematic economy, what delivers it is flawless visual production.

The visual experience of “Soldato” is beautifully textured with a subtle hint of well-done graphic novels. Composition of shots provides a true feel for the barren Sonora desert and the southern border region. It conveys something many people in the United States don’t get about the Mexican border issue: this is a different world from the rest of the United States. This writer lived near the Mexico-United States border for nearly three years, crossed the badlands between Arizona and Mexico numerous times and has stood across the wall from Juarez, Mexico. I’ve also lived in the Middle East and travel across North Africa. The border region has more in common with the Middle East and North Africa than it does with anywhere else in the U.S. As a result, most Americans have a tough time putting the border crisis into perspective. “Soldato” provides a visual insight that dramatizes the reality of the Mexico/U.S. border.

There is another brutally relevant gut-punch in “Soldato”. One that is as accurate as it is politically inflammatory. “Sicario: Day of the Soldato” acknowledges the weaponization of illegal immigrants. Whether they are Libyan and Syrian immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Malta or Greece, or Mexican immigrants trying to gain entry to the U.S., the exodus of distressed populations has been subversively used by nations to impose discord and hardship on neighboring countries. As the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has degraded over the border debate, the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. has, by nearly all accounts, accelerated to a point where the question of what to do with the increasing number of people who cross into the U.S. has become deeply divisive. “Soldato” pulls no punches in editorializing that illegal immigration is being used as a tool by drug cartels and a corrupt government to destabilize the U.S. After the last two weeks of illegal immigration headlines in the U.S. and a couple hours in the theater with “Soldato” this light bulb goes on over your head pretty brightly.

Given all the relevance, economy, visual luxury and masterful execution of “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”, this film gets a spot on the very top shelf of the best dramatic thrillers as sharp as a paper cut from today’s headlines. “Soldato” is a rare sequel masterwork, durable and abundant with visual and thematic relevance.


 

Tom Demerly writes for TheAviationist.com and appears in Business Insider. His articles and editorials are read by millions around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Film critics acknowledge just a few revered gems of action filmmaking as reference icons of the craft. The two Michael Mann films “Heat” and “Miami Vice” demonstrate the highest level of depicting moral dilemma, pragmatic reality and violent consequence set against an artful film canvas woven from the intricate threads of plot, cast, soundtrack, scene and nearly every other dramatic element.

“Heat” and “Miami Vice” are prefect films, without flaw and packed with subtlety that makes them viewable again and again. They engage the viewer in exactly the same way the eccentric Howard Hughes was drawn to obsessively watch and re-watch the remarkable 1968 John Sturgis film “Ice Station Zebra” based on the Alistair MacLean novel of the same name. As he descended into insanity, Hughes obsessively watched “Ice Station Zebra” several times per day for at least a year, hunting through the intricate film analyzing each scene and searching for new subtleties in the plot and dialogue. Such was the richness of this production, and the depth of Hughes’ dementia.

To an even greater degree, the 2015 masterwork “Sicario” (Spanish for “hitman’) by Director Dennis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan is not only a masterfully made film, but a remarkably relevant commentary and observation of the ongoing U.S. border and immigration dispute with Mexico.  This combination of technical mastery and social relevance make “Sicario” an important movie.

“Sicario” is packed with plot details. The movie is remarkably lean, edited down to only the “meat” of the story. There are no accessories, no distractions. By contrast the recent 2018 film “Den of Thieves”, by director and writer Christian Gudegast, tried to achieve a similar level of mastery and subtlety. But “Den of Thieves” ultimately failed to reach the level of either one of Michael Mann’s films, “Heat” or “Miami Vice”. Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” crumbled on overdeveloped characters and plot diversions that made the film feel clunky and forced. The visual and sound elements were all there in “Den of Thieves”, it just did not execute the lean subtlety of “Heat”, “Miami Vice” and especially “Sicario”.

While every scene in “Sicario” is structural to the overall film, one scene consistently grabs viewers by the throat and leaves film students and writers in awe. The Border Scene.

The border scene opens with a voiceover radio narrative from somewhere, an anonymous voice of authority on the radio that describes the situation at the border. The traffic jam at the U.S. border is an allegory to the delays prevalent in the U.S. immigration process.

The scene quickly cuts to character Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt) who appears observant, apprehensive and confused by the evolving situation. Her face shows puzzlement, reflective of the general mindset of most U.S. citizens when trying to understand the Mexican border situation.

Character Kate Marcer is all of America trying to understand the immigration issue. She is experiencing apathy and fear, but she is naïve of the actual reality of the border situation. Her character is hastily thrust into the environment of the border, forced to make sense of an impossible and violent situation.

Kate Marcer tries to preserve her integrity, but she is reluctantly pulled into a world with violent rules. She resists the second command to “Get out of the car” from character Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). She tries to slow down the action for a moment of reflection and analysis. It nearly costs her life.

There is no music in this short opening part of the scene, a chance for the audience to join in Kate’s experience of taking in the puzzling border environment and trying to understand it. The early lack of music in the scene also leaves it feeling sparse and tense.

Alejandro Gillick is hypervigilant. He maintains his situational awareness and calm mindset, becoming the first character to perceive a subtle threat emerging when he spots a carload of military age males who don’t belong in the setting. Alejandro does not reveal his observation initially, but tells Kate to “Take your service weapon out.” Uncomfortably, Kate complies with this first command and removes her pistol from her holster.

Then we are introduced to a key, but subtle character, Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan). The character of Steve Forsing is based on a photo of an undercover U.S. Army SFO-D operative taken during the Gulf war. The character appears vanilla plain, generic and anonymous, almost to the point of being conspicuously anonymous. He begins the scene as an observer, transitions immediately and tensely to an active participant observing, “Gun. Gun left…”. The radio crackles to life giving the characters in the scene the disjointed and ambiguous rules for trying to moderate a deteriorating and threatening circumstance soon to spin out of control.

The rest of the scene is filled with subtlety and incredible tension quickly contrasted with horrific violence. Every nuance of the scene is finely crafted. Notice the dog barking in the beginning of the scene when the visual cuts to outside the vehicle as the soundtrack music booms into the forefront. The aural tendril of the barking dog continuing quietly in the back of the soundtrack below the musical narration maintains a subliminal tone of alarm and panic underlying the entire scene.

Alejandro pleads in Spanish, “En paz, en paz”. This quick Spanish dialogue to a non-Spanish speaking audience will be most effective. The situation becomes tense and difficult to understand as it accelerates. Director Dennis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan rely on the reality that most viewers cannot speak Spanish, and that Alejandro’s pleading caution to the cartel gunman adds to the building chaos of the scene. The subtitles read, “In peace, in peace”. It is a last, feeble attempt to interject reason and civility into a barbaric setting. The English dialogue appears in a subtitle to complete the subtle message that few real-life characters embroiled in the border conflict recognize a peaceful alternative to the prevalent violence in the region.

Every visual tool is used in Sicario to deliver the sense of tension and conflict.

Finally, the scene concludes with contrasting reactions from characters that include Josh Brolin as team leader Matt Graver. Graver’s reaction to the border shoot-out is pragmatic acceptance and detached calm. It contrasts with Kate Mercer’s terror and confusion.

“Sicario” is not just a great film, it’s an important one to view, contemplate and analyze in the ongoing discussion of the war on drugs and the Mexican border security conversation.

This Friday, June 29, 2018 the sequel to “Sicario” opens in U.S. theaters. While the original 2015 masterpiece will be hard to follow, writer Taylor Sheridan is back for “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”. With a new director, Stefano Sollima, it will be interesting to see if “Day of the Soldato” will be able to deliver with the same subtlety, technical mastery and relevance as the original “Sicario”.

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Mrs. Hawkins was my fifth grade teacher. She wore long skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. In every way, the elementary schoolmarm. I was 10-years old. At this age we form our perceptions of the world and values. When the normally deadpan Mrs. Hawkins spoke of the Battle of Dunkirk she became animated. She orated about the desperation, the fear, the heroism.

I don’t remember anything else from 5th grade or Mrs. Hawkins. I only remember her animated recounting of the Battle of Dunkirk. I was captivated.

For those thin on history, The Battle of Dunkirk was a terrifying turning point when the world began to believe Nazi Germany could not be stopped. Hitler’s army drove the free French and British to the coastal northern border of France. They had no more land to retreat to. They were trapped and likely to be rounded up in a humiliating rout, or annihilated as the Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s “lightning war”, rolled north. The implication was clear: Britain was next.

Boyhood recollections are frail and nuanced things. Would this movie honor my recollections of Mrs. Hawkins’ theatrical oration from way back in 1972 about the horrors and heroism of Dunkirk?

I remember my teacher’s recounting of The Battle of Dunkirk as a grainy black and white photo from a history filmstrip.

The Battle of Dunkirk is a uniquely British drama. Men were reserved and dignified in stoic heroism. They wore wool uniforms and held tightly to military conventions. Leaders were leaders and foot soldiers were resigned to their often-drudgerious life as ground-pounding order-takers. There were heroes in every rank, every role, but the most gallant flew the Spitfires and Hurricanes above the bloody sacrifice of land battle.

That was how I pictured Dunkirk: a tragic epic on the scale of Greek mythology. I did not want that boyhood impression sullied by some poorly executed, fast-cut, CGI remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that relied on shock and gore to impress.

Director Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” honored my boyhood impression as though it were a beautiful, lyrical poem recited by a Shakespearean actor in a quiet theater setting.

In every way, “Dunkirk” is perfect.

Tense and deeply stylized, Writer and Director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” adds a new level of sophistication to the war movie genre and a creative new way to depict the enormity and horror of war.

Beyond its theatrical depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk in grey, somber visual and musical tones, “Dunkirk” also pays homage to the British resolve that saved the nation. Every person in England during WWII could be regarded as a guardian of freedom, unlikely heroes rising to confront the terror of war.

In “Dunkirk”, actor Mark Rylance who plays “Mr. Dawson”, is all of Great Britain. His character, and those of his sons, defines “Keep Calm and Carry On”. He also exemplifies adherence to tradition and dignity that makes Britain great. Rylance’s performance carries a significant amount of the weight in “Dunkirk”.

“Dunkirk” is completely unlike any war film, and perhaps epitomizes an elegant transition in film making to a new visual and audio feel. The film strikes an optimal balance between flow, image, sound and dialogue. The haunting soundtrack of Hans Zimmer, whom you know from the masterful score of “Blackhawk Down” and “Gladiator”, adds additionally sensory experience to the story. Its effect is trance-like and poetic, as I remember my teacher’s glassy-eyed account of the battle. With the measured use of editing the film flows beautifully, no small accomplishment in this era of movie making.

More importantly than just seeing “Dunkirk”, it is worth studying not only as a historically inspired based-on-fact accounting, but also a masterful new direction and flavor of filmmaking.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

You won’t find a bad review about the beautiful film-meditation “Kedi” and rightfully so. Director Ceyda Torun built a dream-like soft documentary stitched together from several storylines, and it fits and flows with elegance and mirth.

This is a kind, gentle and soothing meditation about our relationship with cats and, by proxy, with each other as humans. It identifies something good and meaningful in every person, and every animal, and celebrates it through the reverent monologues of the human supporting cast of the film as they pay homage to the roaming cat population of Istanbul, Turkey.

Kedi is a long time coming, a movie that will likely enjoy decent commercial success with the rise of cat prominence via social media. In an era of increasing social divisiveness posting a photo of a cat to your social media is the modern equivalent of talking about the weather. Everyone can relate, no one is alienated. And that is where Kedi begins, with the universal and oftentimes unspoken confession that we are more connected to our animals than we will sometimes openly admit.

Whether you are a “cat person” or not, Kedi is visually luxurious, a transparent travelogue through Istanbul and an examination of the reality that good is to be found in nearly everyone. Kedi reveals an intimacy in our relationship with animals I’ve never seen in film before, and that is uniting. It is something we need to hear.

A worrisome plot boils under the glowing surface of Kedi, the brief mention of expansion and modernization that threatens both the indigenous stray cat population supported by the citizenry, and also threatens this entire gentle culture, both human and animal. It’s ominous but not obnoxious, and mostly this film is charming, but this inference is unsettling. But that is a story for another documentary. As for this one, you may relax and enjoy this beautiful meditation.

Cat lover or not, Kedi is intrinsic and well made. It is worth seeking out. If you are a cat lover, then this film is an anthem and an ode to why we worship and cherish these perfect, gentle, beautiful animal-lords of our world who are so generous to include us in their lives.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Concussion is a knockout that will leave you dizzy from the impact of a movie done so well it is destined for Academy Award greatness.

Director Peter Landesman may have been the only person capable of bringing this incredible drama and great American story to the screen then making it leap into your lap with such rapt pacing and skillful storytelling that you can never look away. In every way Concussion is masterpiece storytelling.

Will Smith and Alec Baldwin may have achieved their greatest roles ever in this important film that showcases the frightening risk of head injuries in professional American football.

The true story traces main character Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian born academic and forensic pathologist with a north-pointing arrow for doing the right thing. His intellect and crusade for the truth are pitted against big American football’s establishment. The result is just like the skull-scrambling impact of players colliding after the ball is snapped.

Concussion masters the difficult art of pacing and dialogue. Simply filmed but opulently cast the movie hits the screen running and never backs off. I am not a football fan nor do I know much about the game, but the insights bring you into a drama turned sports story interwoven with detective thriller and sprinkled in romance that you won’t find in any galaxy far away.

This is the opening that should have set records over the holiday movie season.

There are so many significant and relevant dimensions to the film it is almost too much for one sitting but because of its subtle and precise delivery combined with perfect pacing it is deep, rich but digestible.

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The real Dr. Bennet Omalu.

One of the most significant features of the story is the starring role that education plays in the true story and the way it is featured in the movie. While sports drama create synthetic heroes dramatized in the guttural ethos of sucking-it-up Concussion celebrates education, determination and a dedication to virtue and truth.

We need a hundred more movies that celebrate virtue and education emanating from real life.

Don’t miss Concussion. It is a brain-swelling impact on the traditionally fluffy holiday film season that hits hard out of left field and will leave your ears ringing.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

SPECTRE10

The 24th film in Ian Fleming’s landmark James Bond series, SPECTRE, is a different Bond movie influenced heavily by recent success in comic book story lines. The theme turns internal, a struggle between characters from previous Bond films. In doing so, it is interesting for lifelong Bond fans, but a let-down overall.

SPECTRE is not a typical Bond film; James Bond does not save the world from anything. He merely saves his job from a bad boss, and in deviating from the sweeping, template-style plot of James Bond saving the world from some type of annihilation the enormity of the Bond franchise is lost. Everyone has had to save a job from the influence of a rotten boss. Few of us have saved the world from annihilation. SPECTRE could have been a remake of Office Space, but with guns and sports cars.

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Director Sam Mendes is only the second director to oversee two Bond films, but his understanding and reverence for the franchise are clear in the visuals, authentic feeling stunts and pacing. Mendes understands the true Bond character as Ian Fleming envisioned him; dark at times, understated, capable but vulnerable. It is a decent characterization of the fabled super-spy personality ever man aspires to. But SPECTRE breaks down because of this. Bond is just a guy with job problems in SPECTRE.

SPECTRE is a visually flawless film with masterfully executed scenes; beautiful cuts and soundtrack integration that make it flow at a pace that seems impossible. The lighting, coloration and mise en scene, that ephemeral and difficult to achieve visual quality that makes a movie seem like a dream, are all utter perfection. You can enjoy it as a travelogue. And hold your breath- you’ll need it- for the train scene when Dr. Madeleine Swan emerges for dinner in a long, ivory gown that defies the laws of physics. It’s the best part of the movie.

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For lifelong Bond fans there is plenty to dig your teeth into though. The opening scene is an ode to several Bond films, the Junkanoo scene from the 1965 Bond high-mark, Thunderball. The helicopter fight is a tribute to Bond fighting outside a helicopter in the 1981 For Your Eyes Only. The beautiful cross-country train trip and incendiary make-out scene with Dr. Madeleine Swann takes us straight back to From Russia With Love.

So, SPECTRE is a reunion of sorts, a James Bond old-home week. It doesn’t stand alone well on its own, and the plot is underwhelming. I left the theatre hoping that the current production staff might have the courage to remake Thunderball rather than try to involve us in office politics with guns.

By Tom Demerly.

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney comes to grips with a bleak landscape, literal and figurative, in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”.

Know two things about The Martian: 1. I normally don’t like outer space movies and, 2. Director Ridley Scott is the single greatest film director of our time.

The Martian is a triumph of film we haven’t seen in over a decade- or more. It lingers like the one book you read as a youth that changed the trajectory of your life. As with the space mission it depicts, it uses existing technology masterfully to meld plot, theatre and visual effect into one of the finest movies in the history of film. It is without flaw.

The Martian chronicles stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s survival ordeal after being trapped on Mars alone. It documents themes of survival, valor, and unity.

But there is one shining idol in The Martian, one hero, one savior- and it is the savior we increasingly must look to in our modern world: Knowledge.

The film is supported by an equally outstanding sidekick: Unity.

While the cast of The Martian is incredible, it is the theme that wins this remarkable journey. That we must think, learn and reason to survive; that we must do these things in unity and cooperation.

The Martian isn’t about space exploration; it is about our collective future and mutual society on earth. The story is told against the dusty, hostile canvas of the Martian landscape, a metaphor for our terrestrial world that has become increasingly bleak- nearly identical to the dry surface of a hostile planet. While told as a story about survival on Mars, this is a story about our lives on earth, increasingly separated- and oddly united- by technology against a backdrop of survival in a modern age. In the end the film’s hero character relies on knowledge, learning, thinking and the international cooperation of a unified mankind for survival. It isn’t about reaching for the stars, it’s about getting back to earth.

I don’t like “FX” movies, and that (by necessity) defines the space film genre’. But Scott creates visual magic in The Martian with effects that are stunning and vast. He creates a sense of distance and time in the open space visuals, and a sense of remote desolation in the Mars scenes.The film is also visually luxurious and adventurous. I grew up in the Apollo age, and this is the first thing that has ever made me want to actually go into outer space.

Many of the Mars scenes in Martian were filmed in Wadi Rum Jordan, a desolate canyon system in the western Sahara that is home to extreme endurance events like the 150-mile Marathon des Sables ultra-running race and the Paris-Dakar rally. Wadi Rum was also the haven of the real-life Sir Lawrence of Arabia. This accounts for much of its authentic visual feel.

The visual treat extends from judicious and masterful effects to stunning and desolate real life sets and finishes with remarkable treatment of the technology props from space suits to communications equipment to Watney’s Martian rover vehicle.

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That this movie is a Ridley Scott product is no surprise. But there are two surprises; Ridley Scott keeps churning out perfectly timed masterworks. Recall his landmark Gladiator, a film so perfectly done, so utterly out of left field, and so universally received across cultures that it became one of a small handful of modern classics alongside Forest Gump, Titanic, and a select collection of other blockbusters. Gladiator was released in 2000. It became a metaphor for many as the world squared off in a global war beginning the next year. And it expressed the fatality of conflict, even set against heroism. Scott also produced the landmark war film Blackhawk Down. Scott was even executive producer of the joyous Life in a Day documentary celebration of mankind around the world.

As for the cast of The Martian, they are secondary but integral, and stand in the foundational role of theme and plot like concrete thespian pillars. Each characters performs, no character overwhelms. Their performances are subtle mastery.

And then there is Matt Damon. Damon trumps the best of movie and theater by presenting characters on his personal canvas that is dashing and endearing. You love the guy. He is real, accessible and grows to hero status before your eyes. No author could hope for a better interpreter of their main character than Matt Damon, whether it is Robert Ludlum’s character Jason Bourne or as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting.

Finally, I acknowledged a hefty paradigm shift with two other similarly themed movies when leaving the theater after The Martian. Both Castaway and Life of Pi discussed themes of isolation and survival. These stories guide us through an ordeal against which our values are recalibrated. We learn what is important. But The Martian makes Life of Pi feel oddly clinical and cryptic and makes Castaway feel desolate and sad in theme. The Martian renews our faith.

The great gift you leave the theater with after The Martian is hope, and that is perhaps our most valuable gift right now.

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