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Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Wright’

Interested parties could be excused concern when it comes to the directorial career of Edgar Wright – over the last few years, anyway. Following the successful one-two of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, with their associated popular and critical success, a promising career in big-budget movies beckoned – until 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World proved to be just too idiosyncratic a vision to find an audience, and he was notoriously booted from Ant-Man (a film he’d been working on for the best part of a decade), again because Marvel couldn’t quite get on board with his approach to the material. Wright’s only significant success since Hot Fuzz has been The World’s End – which harsh critics might say suggests he can’t make a good movie without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Nevertheless, Wright’s long-time backers at Working Title have stuck by him, and here they are putting their name to another very un-Working Title-like movie – neither a rom-com nor a film with especially serious aspirations, Wright’s Baby Driver is in many ways a modern take on both the kind of stylised urban drama made by Walter Hill in the seventies, and the teen-oriented drive-in tales of a generation earlier.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a young man with two great passions in his life – classic music and dangerous driving. Following a traffic accident as a child in which his parents were both killed, he has been left with tinnitus and is obliged to listen to music virtually non-stop in an attempt to drown out the buzzing in his ears. If only that were the worst of his problems. For some considerable time he has found himself in the sway of veteran criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), for whom he has been working as a supremely gifted getaway driver. After many years of, basically, indentured servitude, Baby finds himself on the brink of discharging his debt to Doc, and finds himself beginning to dream of freedom… the open road… Debora (Lily James), the waitress at his favourite diner…

Doc, however, has other ideas, and sees no reason to dispense with Baby’s services – his concession is that Baby will receive his share of the loot in return for his participation now, and if he refuses it will be so much the worse for him, his girlfriend, and his elderly adoptive father (CJ Jones). And so he reluctantly shows up to participate in planning sessions for a raid on a post office, other members of the team including a stockbroker turned robber (Jon Hamm) and a violent psychopath (Jamie Foxx). Baby finds his capacity to ignore the violence and cruelty that’s an essential part of armed robbery is reaching its limit, but how is he going to extricate himself from the dangerous world he’s so deeply involved in?

On paper it sounds like a fairly generic crime thriller, with many elements we have seen numerous times before (you may detect faint echoes of the 2011 movie named Drive, as well as The Driver from 1978).  What makes Baby Driver distinctive, however, is its soundtrack, which is very prominent throughout the film, and the way the music is integrated into the story: Wright’s inventiveness when it comes to this sort of thing has been clear ever since the ‘Don’t stop me now’ sequence in Shaun of the Dead. I’ve seen it suggested that this is essentially a jukebox musical (although none of the characters actually do any singing), which couldn’t function without the songs on the soundtrack.

Well, maybe. In a few places the way the songs are woven into the movie is brilliantly handled – a gun battle where the shots are choreographed to match the drums of the song playing over it, for example – but much of the time Wright doesn’t appear to be doing much more than just sticking a cool tune on over a scene. Maybe the director is a little twitchy about making the film too surreal and stylised, after what happened with Scott Pilgrim, in which case this is kind of understandable. In any case, it is naturally a very good soundtrack; anything which brings artists like Marc Bolan and The Damned to a wider audience will get the nod from me.

So in the end, instead of something particularly adventurous stylistically, we are left with that, let’s be generous, archetypal crime thriller, which on the whole is handled fairly seriously. (Although there are some very good gags along the way.) Ansel Elgort is not really required to do much more than look soulful and conflicted, and Lily James is honestly not very much more than a symbol, but they are perfectly fine in these roles. Most of the heavy lifting, in terms of actual acting, is done by the more senior members of the cast, and these performances are possibly the best thing about the movie. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx are all extremely good as characters which frequently turn out to have a bit more depth than you might honestly have expected – the result is a nicely twisty-turny caper, although a few of the final character beats and reversals don’t ring entirely true.

In any case it’s nice to find so much heft in a movie that promised to be much more about style and directorial whistles and bells. Those are still here to some extent, and perhaps this is why the various chases don’t give the breathless hit of adrenaline that a really classic movie car chase provides , and why the romance between Baby and Debora feels a bit anaemic and lacking in real heat – an ostentatious reminder of Wright’s directorial presence is never very far away, which stopped me, at least, from completely engaging with the film as a piece of fiction.

Still, this is well put together stuff, even if I’m not sure the target audience will recognise all the narrative riffs that Wright is looking to play – rather unexpectedly, he takes the morality of the film and his characters rather more seriously than is fashionable than in a lot of films aimed at this sort of demographic, and it will be interesting to see how that plays with the target audience.

Baby Driver is unlikely to transform anyone’s world, but it is a solidly assembled and consistently entertaining film. Whether (and how much) Wright is forcibly restraining his natural instincts in order to make a commercially more viable film is a question I suspect we’ll never know the answer to, but this deserves to do well for him.

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A few days ago I found myself thinking back to the heady days of Summer 2000, which don’t really feel like that long ago (not if you’re my age, anyway). The big event at the cinema was the release of the first X-Men film, and I recall my genuine sense of excitement and anticipation: after so many years of half-hearted TV movies with people like David Hasselhoff, someone had finally made a proper full-blooded adaptation of a Marvel comic book! I could hardly believe it.

These days, of course, we live in a different world – it’s been a long time since a blockbuster season has gone by without a Marvel adaptation making its cash-hoovering debut, and you could readily argue that superhero movies, and in particular the ones from Marvel Studios itself, are the defining influence on summer films in general.

ant-man

Things have got to the point where virtually all of Marvel’s most famous characters have some kind of established screen presence, with the company turning to really quite obscure second- and third-stringers for new movies. Thus we have the release of Peyton Reed’s take on Ant-Man, starring and co-written by Paul Rudd. Rudd plays Scott Lang, an electronics engineer turned Robin Hood-ish burglar, who as the flm starts is being released from prison in San Francisco. The world being as it is, Scott finds it hard to find a legit job, but he desperately needs money if he is to get access to his young daughter. This leads him to contemplate one last extra-legal excursion, breaking into a vault in the basement of a retired millionaire. But all he finds within is a very peculiar suit…

It turns out the millionaire in question is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), ex-SHIELD agent and scientific genius, who back in the 80s was rumoured to be very tiny special forces operative Ant-Man. Now Pym is concerned that his less principled former protege (Corey Stoll) intends to duplicate his research into shrinking technology, and needs someone to take on the mantle of Ant-Man and steal the prototype of the new equipment. Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is somewhat aggrieved at not being offered the gig herself, but the trio nevertheless set about preparing Scott for his mission…

You would think, given the only place that Ant-Man is really prominent is in the A-Z index of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, that this movie was conceived relatively recently – certainly well after the start of Marvel Studios’ rise to dominance. But no: I distinctly recall having a conversation about the fact it was in development while going to see Casino Royale at the back end of 2006 (the general tenor of the conversation being ‘why on Earth are they making a movie about Ant-Man…?). This film has spent a long time coming to the screen, with a development process you would have to describe as troubled.

For a long time this was going to be Edgar Wright’s Marvel movie, with a script co-written by him and Joe Cornish, but director and studio parted company due to an inability to agree on the tone of the film. This was taken by many observers as an indication of the meat-grinder nature of Marvel Studios’ operations, with genuinely creative directors not being allowed to bring their own sensibilities to what is at heart a corporate franchising operation.

And yet it would seem otherwise. Wright retains not just a story and screenplay credit, but is listed alongside Stan Lee as executive producer on the film (how much he was genuinely involved it’s hard to say, of course), and there are sections of this film which genuinely do feel like they have his fingerprints on them: mostly some drolly comic scenes concerned with Scott’s largely useless team of accomplices, but also some inspired sight gags as well. Visually, this film does seem genuinely inventive – having a protagonist who spends much of the film only half an inch tall does allow for a new perspective, of course.

On the other hand, there are other elements of the film which do feel very much like business as usual for the company: I’d be prepared to bet that a sequence in which Ant-Man takes on one of the Avengers never appeared in any draft written by Wright and Cornish, while certain aspects of the central conflict do recall elements of the original Iron Man, flipped and twisted around a bit. But on the whole, elements of the wider universe are handled with a light touch – many of them are handled very subtly indeed, with some of the cameos and references possibly slipping by unnoticed by the casual viewer.

The film handles Ant-Man’s somewhat tangled history with commendable skill, as well, finding a way to incorporate the original Ant-Man (Pym – also, in the comics, the creator of Ultron) and his replacement, without it all feeling needlessly complex and involved. Some have grumbled about the non-appearance of the Wasp in this movie, but the door is left very wide open for the future.

In short, a few moments of tonal uncertainty excepted, there really isn’t very much wrong with Ant-Man at all: the balance of characterisation, humour, action, and spectacle is almost perfect, resulting in a film which is simply great fun to watch. It has a lightness of touch that simply wasn’t there in Age of Ultron, which often felt like it was in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Even if Ant-Man looks set to do only relatively modest business by the company’s standards, it is – as with Guardians of the Galaxy – the more obscure and off-the-wall property which has provided Marvel with its most creatively successful film of the year. Get going with that Squirrel-Girl adaptation, guys!

 

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Yet another new Vue this week, readers: I know, I know. I was all set to check out the Everyman on Baker Street, but then I had a couple of hours to spare, wandered over to Leicester Square, and found out that if I just spent the afternoon there I could enjoy a couple of new movies and a tasty Mexican-inflected burger-based meal. The only downside was that one of the movies had to be at the Leicester Square Vue, but there you go. This does at least seem to be as nice as any other Vue (which is to say, quite nice in most respects), and Leicester Square is a fun place to go to the cinema. I note that weird, costume-wearing Frenchies have already started queueing to see The Lone Ranger, a film so blatantly and painfully misconceived that it’s currently 50-50 as to whether I go to see it at all (and this is from someone who paid to watch Battleship and After Earth). Hey ho.

Anyway, the film I saw at the Leicester Square Vue was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, his latest re-teaming with writer and star Simon Pegg (not to mention co-star Nick Frost). To briefly recap, after making an name for themselves in TV, these boys scored a bit of a hit with the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead – still pretty much the gold standard when it comes to funny zombie films – and also did rather well with the 2007 comedy action pastiche Hot Fuzz (a film I personally find somewhat less accomplished, but still bags of fun). Then Pegg and Frost went off to make Paul with someone else, a film which did quite well though it wasn’t particularly great, and Wright went off and made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film which didn’t do very well even though it was quite good.

Now here they are again, with what’s being advertised as the final instalment of a trilogy – helps with the marketing, I suppose, because in terms of story the three films are completely separate, not even taking place in the same genre.

The-Worlds-End-poster

This time round Pegg plays Gary King, a highly dubious and unreliable character, who at the start of the film is intent on reuniting the gang of his teenage years. Frost plays his best friend Andy, while comprising the rest of the crew are Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman. Many years ago this bunch set out to complete an epic pub crawl in their home town, but failed: now Gary is insisting they give it another try.

However, the freewheeling teenagers of decades before have grown up to be lawyers, estate agents, and so on, and even getting everyone back together is a challenge. Slowly the realisation dawns that Gary himself hasn’t appreciably grown up at all, and the question of exactly what his motivation for this reunion is becomes increasingly pressing.

Several pubs into the crawl, of course, things take a rather different and unexpected turn, as does the tone of the film. This does rather come out of nowhere, if you haven’t seen the trailer anyway, but suffice to say that, as usual, what started as a comedy turns into a different sort of genre movie entirely…

I seem to recall being instinctively well-disposed towards Shaun of the Dead when it came out in 2004, mainly because I’d met Simon Pegg the year before and he turned out to be one of the good guys. (Pegg’s rise to something approaching bona fide moviestardom since then has been gratifying.) I find myself equally inclined to say nice things about The World’s End, but again I am unsure whether this is simply due to the quality of the film, or the fact it seems precision-aimed at me as its target audience.

Because this is essentially a film about looking down the barrel of forty, realising your youth is all but over, and coming to terms with the fact that the past is past. All the characters have done this except Gary, and the emotional arc of the film is about how this affects their relationships. There is inevitably a good deal of nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s, which is reflected in one of the most evocative and memorable soundtracks I can recall: Blur, the Stone Roses, the Soup Dragons, Suede, they are all here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story winds up hitting a few emotional notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mainstream comedy film, but I found this just made the film more engaging. Certainly, I went to see The World’s End looking forward to the genre element of the story, but found myself enjoying the character-based comedy-drama much more. In addition to sharp and witty dialogue, there is also some well-executed slapstick and a brilliant gag about the plague of homogenous gastro-ification sweeping British pubs.

This is not to say that the other stuff is by any means bad, of course: it’s smartly written and immaculately assembled, with some superbly inventive action choreography along the way (even if the unarmed combat skills displayed by virtually every character seem a little implausible). But by the climax, one almost gets a sense of the film itself having had a couple of pints too many – things become just a touch out of control and silly, though not enough to spoil proceedings. (It’s definitely a stretch to claim the film is on some level an homage to Wyndham or Youd, as some publicity materials are claiming.) The conclusion, though fairly logical, seemed to me to be distinctly odd and tonally rather at odds with the way the rest of the film had been going.

Nevertheless, this is still a quality piece of work, as you would expect from the assembled talent involved in making it. Given the A-Team of actors involved, the only real surprise is Nick Frost’s continued ability to steal scenes apparently without effort. Doing that when you’re sharing the frame with Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman (often all at the same time) is a really remarkable talent. Frost might also want to consider branching out into action movies: he shows considerable potential in this department. Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan also pop up in key roles: there’s something weird about the fact that not much more than a decade ago it was perfectly okay for the two of them to get it on in a movie, but now he’s being cast as her former schoolteacher. Typically strange cinema attitudes to ageing, I suppose.

The World’s End is very much of a piece with the two other Wright/Pegg/Frost films in the way it combines comedy-drama with genre pastiche, but it isn’t afraid to try some new things – the roles played by the two leads are effectively reversed, while there’s less of a focus on their relationship and more of an ensemble feel to the film. For the most part, this works, and if this really does turn out to be the last time these three work together, they are concluding their relationship on a high. The World’s End is consistently very funny, frequently moving, and often rather exciting. A great piece of intelligent entertainment, and one of the best films of the summer so far.

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Okay, we may as well get this out of the way before we go any further: most people’s point of reference for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is going to be Shaun of the Dead. It’s not as if the film even shies away from this much: ‘from the producers of…’ features prominently on the poster, Edgar Wright is involved, Nick Frost has a hefty cameo role and the film is, essentially, a similar kind of stylistic mash-up. But, and I’m being up front about this, if you go in expecting a film as deft and witty and smart as Shaun then you won’t be doing yourself, or Attack the Block, any favours, because where the 2004 movie felt like a brilliant discovery, this is more some sort of bizarre oddity.

The film opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home one Bonfire Night. She lives in a tower block on a desolate London council estate and soon finds herself facing a fairly grim scenario as she is surrounded and mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths. Then things become somewhat less predictable and rather more surprising as a ball of fire falls from the sky and disgorges a slavering, clawed, ferocious creature.

Sam runs and in a slightly queasy narrative lurch the gang of muggers become the protagonists, as they kill the thing and carry away its remains as a trophy. But it soon becomes apparent that the fireball was only the first of many, and more – containing considerably more dangerous luminously-toothed gorilla-wolves – are landing all over the neighbourhood. The gang aren’t about to let any bunch of extraterrestrial monsters muscle in on their turf and quickly tool themselves up as the aliens prepare to attack the block they live in…

Quite by chance I caught a showing of this movie with subtitles, and in retrospect this may have been a good thing as nearly all the characters are a generation younger than me and speak in a street patois I am not particularly fluent in. I have no way of being sure, but it certainly seemed to me that the movie was doing a good job of giving an authentic impression of the dead-end culture the main characters have grown up within. Having said that, this is clearly the work of someone quite well-versed in the SF genre – the gang reside in Wyndham Tower, overlooking Ballard Street (amongst others), and while the movie doesn’t directly reference either writer (except perhaps Ballard’s High Rise, and then only tangentially) it was a nice reference.

But most importantly, Joe Cornish definitely seems to have chops as a film director. I was startled, years ago, to hear he and Edgar Wright had been retained to write a script for Marvel Studios, but on the strength of this they should snap him up as a solo act – he has a sure eye for the kind of cinematic flourish that really makes Attack the Block look like it belongs on the big screen. Rather in the way that Richard Ayoade seems to have assimilated the sensibility of American indie and produced his own version of it, so Cornish has done the same with a more mainstream, action-oriented style.

Given Cornish’s background as a performer – not to mention the presence in this film of Nick Frost, who demonstrates his usual monumental ability to steal scenes – you might expect this to be a rather broader comedy than it is. There are a few laughs along the way, to be sure, but this is really a…

Uh, well, I may have to get back to you on that one, because… well, if this movie is primarily intended as an action movie, it has a serious problem practically from the first scene. This is because most of the main characters are initially introduced as violent muggers and as a result almost impossible to sympathise with or root for (for me, anyway). It may be the idea that as time goes by we’re intended to forget how we first met the gang, or that the circumstances of the alien incursion are sufficiently serious to justify our overlooking the fact they’re vicious thugs – but the film never quite pulls this trick off.

And I get the impression Cornish is aware of this and it’s something he’s done deliberately, almost as a challenge to the audience. It would, after all, be easy enough to have started the film differently, omitted the mugging, and avoided this whole problem. If it’s not deliberate then it’s a major mis-step on his part.

I suspect it was a calculated move, as when it’s not being a rather 2000AD-ish action movie Attack the Block seems to want to say serious things about gang culture and wasted young lives in British inner-cities. But exactly what these things are I couldn’t quite make out, beyond a few very obvious points hammered home without a great deal of subtlety – ‘Actions have consequences,’ someone says at one point, rather labouring the issue.

When it comes to youth gang members – ‘hoodies’, as we rather charmingly used to refer to them – most films either mindlessly glamourise them, reflexively demonise them, or treat them much more thoughtfully as damaged, broken people, the product of their environment. At various points Attack the Block does all three, which is a neat trick. Whether it serves the story or not is another matter.

John Boyega does a bang-up job of portraying Moses, leader of the gang, and does succeed in giving him depth as a character (some of the other young performers are ever so slightly am-dram). But you don’t go to a knockabout action movie about aliens to get soul-searching and social comment, just as you don’t go to see a drama about the awful lives of dead-end kids on council estates looking for action sequences with CGI nasties (if there’s a social metaphor involved in the alien incursion storyline, I can’t discern what it is). Cornish has succeeded in fusing together two genres with absolutely nothing in common in terms of tone or audience expectations.

Once again, it’s a neat trick, but I’m not sure who exactly is going to find this movie a completely satisfying experience. It’s an extremely well-made and well-directed film, and a major calling card for Joe Cornish, but to completely enjoy it I think you would have to identify with the central characters to a degree of which I’m simply not capable: and while that’s partly a simple issue of fact, it’s also a result of the script. I’m loath to describe any film as being too clever for its own good, but Attack the Block may be just that.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 15th 2004: 

Hello again everyone, and you see before you the writings of a relieved man. It’s always a risky proposition to go to the cinema expecting that the evening’s film will be a marvel, a triumph, a joy to behold, because then even if it turns out to be only ‘not that bad after all’, it’ll still on some level be a disappointment. That goes double when you feel a personal loyalty, however slight or unwarranted, towards someone involved with the project. And when said project is a British comedy film, a genre with a frankly dodgy track record of late, well, you’re not exactly doing yourself any favours…

The source of all this angst is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies in it) co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg. I bumped into Pegg (he said nonchalantly) last summer just as filming was about to get under way and asked him how the film was coming on. Now I’m going to sound biased and soppy here but he really was quite extraordinarily friendly and genuine towards a total stranger. Ever since then I’ve been looking forward to the movie and desperately hoping I could write nice things about it…

And I can! Given all of the above, you would be right to question my objectivity, but this is a great, witty, pacy film – a hilarious comedy that also manages to be an astonishingly grim horror film. It’s the story of Shaun (Pegg) a coming-up-to-thirty guy whose life has never quite clicked into gear, mainly due to his own laziness. Wanting him to make something of his life is his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), while holding him back is his slovenly flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). As the film opens, Liz finally tires of her relationship with Shaun solely taking place in their local pub, and goaded on by her flatmates (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) insists that things change.

Shaun being Shaun, he mucks it up and she chucks him. Will he be able to win her back? Will he be able to resolve his relationships with his mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy)? Will his life finally get into gear? And will the sudden collapse of society as a zombie apocalypse gets underway have any impact on all these things?

Pegg and Wright are probably best known for Channel 4’s hyper-hip and knowing sitcom Spaced, and a lot of reviewers are basically describing this as Spaced: The Movie. Well, there’s something to be said for that, as nearly all the Spaced gang are present and correct here: in addition to Pegg, Frost, and Wright, Jessica Stevenson has a small but crucial role, and Julia Deakin has a timy cameo. But for all that, the style is very different – Shaun has none of Spaced‘s genre spoofs or knowing film references (with the exception of a brief but gleefully vicious sideswipe at 28 Days Later). Wright’s direction is fluid and intelligent without being overexcitable, and he handles the build-up well.

By this I mean that Shaun seems to start off as a fairly generic British relationship comedy – with the startling anomaly that nearly all the jokes are actually funny – about the troubled personal lives of twentysomething people. But gradually, other elements start to appear – odd news reports play in the background and are ignored by all the characters, and extras begin behaving very oddly indeed, until finally the film tips over into true horror territory and the dead begin to prey upon the living in earnest.

The balancing act between humour and horror is elegantly achieved, with only a few scenes uncertain in tone. It’s such a gradual shift that when the film suddenly reaches a very dark place and principal characters start meeting very sticky ends indeed – depicted, by the way, entirely straight – it’s a genuine shock and it all seems much more harrowing as a result. These moments have more genuine emotion than most proper horror films can muster. This is partly due to a cast almost entirely made up of performers best known for playing comedy – in retrospect, a brilliant ploy. Seeing an anonymous American leading man graphically eviscerated and devoured on screen is no more than one would expect – but when it happens to a performer one subconsciously associates with cuddly comedy dramas or quirky sitcoms, it feels like such a deviation from the norm that it is genuinely appalling and horrific.

And in a funny way Shaun of the Dead is much closer in tone to George Romero’s original Dead trilogy than a certain big-budget remake reviewed in these pages only a fortnight ago. This is partly because Shaun‘s zombies are shambling, easily-underestimated semi-competents, rather than snarling athletes, but mainly because the film uses them as a metaphor for the drone-like existence many people in this country lead all the time (it’s quite hard to tell the dead apart from the living at first, and later on Shaun and his friends settle upon the local pub as their sanctuary as the crisis deepens, only to discover all the zombies are instinctively going there too). There’s also a Romero-ish quality to the desperate bickering within the group as the dead close in around them, and an outright (if subtle) steal in the suggestion that contamination from a space probe is actually responsible for the zombie phenomenon.

Smartly written, played, and directed, and making an impressive success of both the genres it attempts, Shaun of the Dead is a treat that will renew the faith in cinema of anyone unlucky enough to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The undead subject matter may put you off – but I beg you not to be dissuaded. This film may have cult classic written all over it, but it deserves a much wider audience, and much wider success, than that. Highly recommended.

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