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Sunday, Jan 21, 2007


Last week, James Cameron announced that after 10 years in post-Titanic exile (where, granted, he did produce a great many personal projects including Aliens of the Deep), he was smack dab in the middle of his next production, an ambitious sci-fi epic entitled Avatar. The storyline, rumored to center around a US solider sent to a far away planet to participate in its war, will be an ambitious undertaking, with live action elements mixing effortlessly with something the director calls “photo-realistic” CGI. In an interview with ‘Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, Cameron indicated that filming had already begun, and that he should have the initial elements wrapped up and completed by the end of this year.


Sounds like a sensational Summer of 2008 release, right? Wrong. In his talk with Knowles, Cameron went on to say that Avatar will not be arriving at your local Cineplex until sometime in 2009, if then. Apparently, the technology being used to render these amazing digital visions – extraterrestrials, space landscapes, intense battle sequences – will take that long to plan, perfect and render (they are being handled by Peter Jackson’s company Weta). Unlike other CGI, Cameron warns, the material in Avatar will be the next generation in visual effects, lifting the medium from its sloppy, Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie level leanings and more toward a successful melding of life with virtual reality. 


As the geek contingency self-flagellates over the possibilities, and the inevitable sniping starts over carefully leaked storyline and character elements, the rest of the moviegoing public will have to wait another 24 months before discovering if Cameron is the next Stanley Kubrick, or just another run of the mill George Lucas. It’s a dazzling, daunting possibility. More than anyone else, the aforementioned 2001 titan brought serious science fiction to the realm of cinematic artistry. On the other hand, Mr. Star Wars has proven that CGI can be both a boon and a burden. From using the technology to revamp his original Trilogy, to relying on it exclusively to visualize his noxious prequels, Lucas, more than anyone else (with perhaps a little help from Jackson) has illustrated the main weakness inherent in the artform.


You see, when done right, CGI is a brilliant cinematic supplement. It presses out the creative creases in complicated sequences and adds an otherworldly pizzazz that standard cinema has a hard time replicating. When used in conjunction with other elements – set design, directorial flair, narrative complexity – it can lift a film into a realm where fantasy truly meets reality and easily co-exists. But when done incorrectly, when over-utilized and brutalized for the sake of some silly desire for more, more, more (read: the Lucas technique), you end up with…well, you end up with animation. Instead of something that resembles the world around us, the artificial nature of the medium pushes us out of the experience. Our eyes and our brain know it, even if the people behind the production don’t.


One of the biggest flaws in old George’s Vader-redefining films is the reliance on digital to create all the filmic facets – sets, props, creatures, action. No matter the attention to detail provided by Industrial Light and Magic and the talented artists employed, the human mind still responds with suspicion when images look too good, when they announce their intention to trick. Take the cityscapes used throughout the prequels. They look amazing with their gravity, physics and pragmatics defying dimensions. Buildings rise miles into the air, landing platforms jutting out like impractical parking ramps. The skylines shimmer with a paradoxical presentation of awe and ambiguity. We enjoy the eye candy treat, but take very little of cinematic sustenance away. Similarly, when all manner of mind-blowing creatures are carted out over and over again, sometimes for the sake of mere variety, we feel the need to disavow the dynamic. 


That’s the problem with most current CGI efforts. From clunky beings that look worse than the earliest computer rendered experiments to obvious attempts to expand a normally nominal vista, the digital domain has turned the art of optical effects into a glorified ruse. It’s all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted software and proprietary technology twisted into the most synthetic of cinematic styles. There are excellent examples of intricate incorporation. There are also models of meaningless modification. But the simple fact remains that a computer just cannot create the tactile, textural experience of well done physical effects.


A perfect example of a director who makes/made such an old school circumstance work, and work brilliantly, is Terry Gilliam. All throughout his breathtaking Ages Trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) the ex-Monty Python animator and true creative genius forged fantastical wonders with puppets, perspective, miniatures, green-screen, and all manner of make-up and animatronic magic. From figuring out a way to feature star Jonathan Pryce in full atmospheric flight to rendering Python pal Eric Idle the fastest man on the planet, Gilliam conspired with his crew to create the impossible out of the practical. Students of the medium know all the tricks – the cotton matting clouds, the use of camera speed to suggest weight and heft, the application of motion control and intricate detailing to give items size and merit. In Gilliam’s talented hands, well crafted F/X aren’t fake or phony. Instead, they effortlessly merge with the overall vision the filmmaker follows, working to keep the audience locked well within the otherwise obtuse ideals.


The same goes for someone like Ridley Scott and his magnificent set of late ‘70s/early ‘80s epics; Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. As close to a perfect combination of movie and mannerisms ever created, Scott’s simple designs – to take viewers to places they’d never dreamed possible – are executed not with computers and programs, but with painstaking interaction between artists and the motion picture medium. From H. R. Giger’s definitive interstellar villain to the look of L.A. circa sometime in the far off future, the reliance on the real, not the bitmap and binary, gives these movies a richness and a realism that technology has yet to capture. Sure, Tim Curry had to go through Hell to take on the persona of The Lord of Darkness, his hours in the make-up chair challenging his patience and his health. But when the results are so resplendent as they are in Legend, when he is flawlessly lost inside the demonic dimensions of his character, it’s easy to excuse the sacrifice.


Other filmmakers like Tim Burton (with his effects style clinic called Beetlejuice) and Sam Raimi (delivering his demented Dead films without a single CGI supplement) equally established that even the cheesiest physical effect could work as long as the elements surrounding it matched the filmmaker’s motives perfectly. Even Cameron proved this with his stellar sequel Aliens. It’s impossible to imagine the movie’s climactic moment rendered digitally. It would seem silly for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to gear up for her battle with the Queen Mother in a totally CGI robotic forklift suit. Call it reverse rejection. With physical effects, the eye sees the stunt, and starts scanning the image for imperfections. With CGI, the vision is so slick that we initially overlook its misdirection. But then the less than real aspects announce themselves, and we loose interest in the subterfuge. 


It’s the biggest problem with modern computer graphics. Unless a great deal of time and care is taken in how a sequence is staged and rendered, the difference between a cosmic clash between warring interstellar factions and a Saturday morning cartoon become almost negligible. The mind can only register so much detail before the brain is boggled and begins to turn off. Sadly, individuals in charge of today’s slick science creations forget this, and try to pack as much intricate specificity into each scene as possible. That’s why Lucas’ arguments about “improving” his original Trilogy can’t stand. We believed the films when they first arrived in theaters, their sense of optical splendor a solid emotional memory for anyone who was lucky enough to see them back then. Now, they look tinkered with, taken to unrealistic lengths by a man who believes obsessively in the power of his microprocessors.


Hopefully, Cameron won’t fall into the same self-indulgent trap. He practically wrote the book on merging the physical with the computerized in his Terminator 2 and Titanic. But with this new mandate to dump the practical and move toward the totally digital, we could be witnessing another creative crash and burn from a filmmaker who should know better. Just because audiences bought the mostly IBM made Middle Earth and all its CG creations doesn’t mean that Peter Jackson’s auteur input should be diminished. After all, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a semi-realistic rendering of sci-fi/ fantasy reality and you don’t hear fans harping over its filmmakers lack of an Oscar. No, cinematic skill needs to accompany the new tendency toward super computer creativity. The two F/X forms can live together in a kind of motion picture bliss, each one supporting and complementing the other. Maybe James Cameron is correct in taking the next two years to make sure his Avatar sets the standard for all computer graphics to come. If he fails, it will be another example of the invention usurping imagination for no good reason.


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Sunday, Jan 14, 2007


There was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than The Munsters. There was the opera singing youth who performed at the famed Hollywood Bowl, the voluptuous B-movie actress with roles in some of the genre’s seminal efforts. There was the omnivorous sexual being, a woman who claimed 22 lovers in her scintillating autobiography, including Howard Hughes, Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor and Billy Wilder. And there was the Broadway star who gave Follies (and it’s showstopper “I’m Still Here”) its emotional heft. Last but not least, she was Lily, ghoulish wife to Frankenstein husband Herman and mother to weird wolfboy Eddie. Unfortunately, in a medium measured by a certain level of “what have you done for me lately” fame, DeCarlo was typecast for her brief stint in creature feature costuming. Though she never complained about the classification, it’s sad that one TV show more or less wiped out an entire other career before the public.


With her recent passing from natural causes at age 84 (DeCarlo died on 8 January) fans of her infamous macabre mother bit have reason to be in mourning. While Fred Gwynne gave The Munsters its manic energy, and Al Lewis enlivened the show with his embittered old bat shtick, DeCarlo was the homespun heart, the voice of reason in a realm overloaded with Gothic goofiness and juvenile joking. It was a peculiar place for the former Peggy Yvonne Middleton to be in. Born in the Canadian province of British Columbia, DeCarlo’s mother saw potential in her child from a very early age. Abandoned by her father when she was three, hers was a hard knock life of isolation, dance classes and dramatic studies. While performing provided an excellent escape from the loneliness and poverty of her single parent’s precarious circumstance, young Peggy still suffered. When she turned 15, Mom finally took her to Hollywood, hoping for instant success. Yet aside from winning Miss Venice Beach in 1938, no one was welcoming this adolescent actress. Without breaching a single studio door, the pair eventually returned to the Great White North, defeated.


Three years later, an 18 year old Peggy returned to Tinsel Town, and found steady work in chorus lines while seeking a screen test. Before long, she was working, unbilled, in several slight short films. When her turn as a bathing beauty got her noticed in 1941’s Harvard, Here I Come, the newly christened Yvonne DeCarlo (a combination of her grandfather’s last name and her middle moniker) became exotic eye candy for numerous forgettable efforts. Though a leading role in 1943’s The Deerslayer raised her profile a little, it wasn’t until 1945’s Salome - Where She Danced that DeCarlo finally got the big break she needed. She soon became known for her “sex-and-sand” epics, movies with names like Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Casbah and Desert Hawk. She was equally comfortable in a Wild West setting, where her smashing good looks and ample figure helped fortify such films as Frontier Gal, Black Bart, River Lady and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.


But it wasn’t until 1956, when noted spectacle specialist Cecil B. DeMille was looking for an actress to play Sephora, the wife of Old Testament titan Moses in The Ten Commandments that the actress finally arrived. DeCarlo won the role, and soon she was stealing glances as the faithful spouse who stood by her God guided man through all manner of trials and tribulations. Looking far more erotic than a Biblical bride should, rumor has it that costar Anne Baxter was angry that her Nefrateri had to compete with DeCarlo’s physical flower for the affections of Charleton Heston. A huge hit, Commandments lead the actress to another fine role as Amantha Starr in Band of Angels. Though today, this pre-Civil Rights look at the antebellum South screams racial (and historical) insensitivity, DeCarlo, along with Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable, gave a daring performance (she was even involved in a taboo testing interracial kiss).


As with most studio stars, the failing Hollywood system strangled the actress’s efforts to move forward. Television became a necessary repository for DeCarlo’s career goals, and she ended up co-starring on popular series like Bonanza and The Virginian. But it was the chance offer of a comedic role in a ridiculous sounding sitcom that finally secured the b-movie beauty a slice of immortality. It is said that former Car 54 costars Gwynne and Lewis did not want DeCarlo as Lily. They thought her too old (she was born in ‘22, with Lewis arriving in ‘23 and Gwynne starting off in ‘26) and saddled with a randy reputation loaded with sleazy innuendo (something Kenneth Anger chronicles in depth in his Hollywood Babylon book). This was supposed to be a family show, after all.


Once she put on the fright mask make-up and donned the ghoul’s gown, all fears were instantly alleviated. Lily became the show’s stalwart, the straight man allowing for Gwynne and Lewis’s laugh out loud craziness. As with The Addams Family, The Munsters used the comic premise to explore domestic issues and subjects usually avoided (racism, sexuality, conformity) by the standard sitcom. But just like its chief competitor, the public grew weary of the gimmick-oriented offering and The Munsters disappeared after only two seasons. Again adrift, DeCarlo tried to parlay her TV celebrity into more meaningful roles. Sadly, she seemed stuck in low budget quickies, dreary drive-in dreck, and the occasional exploitation effort. Thankfully, the Great White Way offered her a chance to shine, showing off the surprisingly strong singing voice that few in her fanbase knew she had.


In Follies, DeCarlo was Carlotta Campion, a former star reminiscing about her time in the limelight. Given a great showstopper by musical genius Stephen Sondheim, the theater proved a perfect format to fulfill DeCarlo’s lifelong dreams. The show ran for over a year, and remained an apex in the actress’s latter years. A few Munster’s reunion shows during the ‘70s and ‘80s kept her in the public eye, but by 1995, age and illness forced her into retirement.


Though she was married only once throughout the course of her career (a 13 year relationship with Bob Morgan resulted in two sons and a step-daughter) DeCarlo’s earlier after hours escapades remained salacious tabloid style scuttlebutt. Her tell-all autobiography in 1987 confirmed many of the more sensational aspects of her story, but nothing could really dissuade the public about her persona. Thanks to endless years of afternoon reruns, generations grew up loving the vampire-like matron with a strong, sensible streak, and Lily Munster’s legacy continued unabated. Even actresses who would take on the Munster mantle in various remakes and TV movies acknowledge that DeCarlo was the definitive version of the humble horror housewife.


Still, there was much more to Yvonne DeCarlo than widow’s peaks, haunted house hilarity and an untamed libido. She’s a reminder that imagery and memory are a strong combination, a recipe to reduce even the most startling female figure into a lifetime of living as the bride of the monster. Tell someone that DeCarlo was Moses’s mate and they’ll probably ask you the name of the spoof you are referencing. Hopefully, as her career is considered, newcomers to the actresses canon will discover the diversity of her talents. Sure, she will always be Lily Munster. But that’s not all Yvonne DeCarlo was. Not by a long shot.


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Sunday, Jan 7, 2007


In the last of our looks back over SE&L‘s brief time on the filmic forefront, it’s time to champion our occasional commentary pieces. Sometimes, we hit the nail right on its pointed little pop culture head. At other instances, we voice strong opinions that rub the average movie maven the wrong way. Between our first piece on hiring talk show hosts and actual directors to be film critics, to challenging the “classic comedy” stance of one of 2006’s biggest hits, the SE&L staff has never shirked its responsibility to be provocative, thoughtful and daring. The 14 pieces offered here provide clear proof of such a literary mandate.


A Critical Misstep
Parental Guidance Rejected
Plane Crash
You’re Joking
Home Video’s True Legacy
Bye Bye, Besson
Too Late?
Akiva Goldsman Must Die!
The Incredibly Inconsistent Career of Bob Clark
Is that the Fat Lady Singing?
Whorat
It’s the Year of the Yahoo!
The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam
Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronoksy’s The Fountain


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007


Double takes are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, this is not your run of the mill Best of list. Look around the web (or in any of the still viable print publications) and it’s a safe bet that many, if not all, of these unusual titles fail to make the Top 10 grade. As a matter of fact, you could probably look from #11 to #100 and not find a single one mentioned. The reason why remains rather simplistic. SE&L is not overly impressed with pure technical merits. A stellar picture and perfect surround sound might be amazing, but when wrapped around the latest lame-ass Hollywood hack job, who gives a digital dung heap? No, what we like is quality – in presentation, in packaging AND in product. That’s why our 2006 tally of the best the home theater medium has to offer is just a wee bit…eclectic. We’d rather celebrate the unknown film in a barebones version than a tricked out work of limited likeability.


Truth be told, this list could be a lot bigger. As sales slack off and marketers grow manic over the lack of blockbuster sales, the smaller companies in the distribution game – Troma, Synapse, Subversive and Anchor Bay – have gone out of their way to track down obscure entries, flesh them out with an amazing array of contextual content, and provide them at a price that both aficionado and novice can support. Sure, some big league studio releases turn up here, but you probably won’t recognize the films featured. That’s the great thing about DVD – within its practical and portable format, a wealth of cinematic knowledge and appreciation can be gained. So get out your guidebook and be prepared to jot down a few of these filmic travels for future reference. After you’ve finished with that regular Tinsel Town treat, you can give one of these experimental excursions a try. You won’t be disappointed:


1. Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, this double dip is still a significant improvement over the original digital presentation. As before, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, bizarre-world found locations, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. Along with the typical Kaufman crew, screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon all found celebrity inside this insane iambic pentameter.


2. Street Trash: Special Two Disc Meltdown Edition
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam vet who takes his frequent homicidal flashbacks out on the surrounding populace, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition, and they weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud near perfect post-millennial package.


3. Christmas Evil
Overlooked upon initial release, Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out is actually a minor masterpiece. Audiences were stunned when they learned that this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. The seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.


4. Cemetery Man
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it’s not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals—zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it’s a thriller, in the most soul-uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so bafflingly beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is poetry, cinema as a stunning visual feast. It remains one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power inherent in thoughts and imagery.


5. The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma remains that, no matter how personable Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still subjugated by a segregated South. No such distinction exists in The Green Pastures - at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—from the biblical characters to the individuals spinning the yarn. Made in Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of minorities, one can read all manner of sinister significance in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.


6. Ganja and Hess
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive Big Apple play date, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut and re-released it as Blood Couple. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s version, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries and making-of documentaries, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. With all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.


7. The Loved One
Back in 1965, a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma’s boys, was scandalous stuff. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones’ Oscar wins, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s mortuary satire to the silver screen. Mimicking fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (borrowing Strangelove‘s look and placing comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus), he took pot shots at several “isms”—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—creating a comic masterwork more or less unseen until this DVD release – 41 years later.


8. The Addams Family Volume 1
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Viewed some 40 years later, the show is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and rebellious to a fault. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family’s main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive. It is easy to see what ‘60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. Thanks to MGM, and their initial DVD offering of the original black and white episodes, we can experience just how immensely entertaining this sadly underrated series actually is.


9. Wonder Showzen: Season 1 & 2
At one time, Wonder Showzen was the new “it” phenomenon – a corrupted kid-vid concept brilliantly realized and abstractly insane. It was Pee Wee’s Playhouse if that magnificent man-child Paul Reubens’ porn store persona had run the show, a sensationally sick perversion turned into a proto-pedophilic playtime. After a brilliant first season, some feel that creators Vernon Chatman and Johnny Lee went overboard in series two with their unabashedly political take on Hee Haw, Horse Apples. But the fact is that no other recent series has taken on the sacred cows and untouchable taboos of our pro-child society as astutely and caustically as this definitive dada-esque satire. Get both DVD sets now before some state wises up and bans this genuine genius effort all together.


10. Dust Devil: The Final Cut
In 1990, Richard Stanley’s Hardware was a heralded event in genre cinema. It had all the trappings of a classic. However, it was merely a minor success, earning little more than a considered cult following among rapid fright fans. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film off the ground; the metaphysical spree slaughter South African epic Dust Devil. Miramax promised all kinds of support, but after seeing a work print, they chopped it up and dumped it onto home video. There, it died a completely undeserving death. Thanks to an amazing new box set from Subversive Cinema, we finally get a chance to see Stanley’s visionary work, as well as a chance to visit his career since the entire Devil debacle.


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