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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Wilkinson’

There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson’s film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.

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The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.

Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?

Well, if you don’t want to know how it all ends, don’t look on Wikipedia, that’s all I can say (or David Irving’s own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator’s psyche). ‘Based on a true story’-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.

And yet you could argue that’s just what has happened (and, sure enough, Irving has been claiming this himself), for Timothy Spall’s striking, mannered performance as David Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced’ representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It’s just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.

Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I’ve just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)

You should never be short on drama if you do a courtroom-based story properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.

Rampton’s courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.

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Long-term readers may recall the somewhat bad mood I was toppled into by a succession of movies early last year, all of them clearly pitching for awards recognition, which seemed to me to be overplaying the worthy-doom-and-gloom card a tad. Maybe you will recall some of them yourself: the Mandela movie, Dallas Buyers Club, and above all 12 Years a Slave. Whatever else you might say about this year’s gong contenders, there is a bit more light and shade going on: the films seem intended to be thought-provoking rather than outright depressing.

That said, this year’s particular awards controversy is the recognition, or otherwise, of Ava DuVernay’s Selma. If nothing else, the academy has made trouble for itself by nominating Selma for Best Picture but not nominating DuVernay for Best Director. Presumably they think the quality of the film is just an accident for which DuVernay had no responsibility, I don’t know. This is a recurring problem created by the necessity to give directors and producers separate Oscars, I suppose: The Two Towers, still to my mind the best of the Lord of the Rings films, fell into the same hole.

There is also, of course, the wider issue that this year all the acting nominees, across the board, are – how can I put this? – mono-ethnic. There is a hefty discussion to be had here concerning the different roles and responsibilities of AMPAS and the major movie studios, which I do not propose to go into again, but one of the big questions is this: is the academy executing a snub by not even nominating David Oyelowo for his performance here?

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Oyelowo does not play someone called Selma, in case you were wondering. He plays Martin Luther King, who at the start of the film is being en-Nobelled for his role in bringing about the end of institutional segregation in the USA. (The film is set in the mid 1960s.) This does not stop him being a thorn in the side of Tom Wilkinson’s character, who is likewise not called Selma: he is Lyndon Johnson, the President at the time. King’s new cause is to fight for the rights of black voters in the southern US: the film features a powerful scene in which an elderly black woman not called Selma (played by Oprah Winfrey, who also produced the movie) attempts to register, but is denied the franchise by a racist functionary on outrageous grounds.

King and his fellow leaders of the civil rights movement head to Alabama, where this has taken place, judging it a good place to make a stand and raise public awareness of the issue. Set against this are a number of bigoted white officials, key amongst them Tim Roth: also not called Selma, he is playing the state governor George Wallace (he of ‘boo hoo’ fame). And so the stage is set for a momentous battle of wills between King and his supporters, and the establishment which – for various reasons – opposes them. The battleground is a small Alabama town called Selma, which if nothing else solves a mystery.

Well, the first thing I have to say is that I found Selma to be rather more to my taste than 12 Years a Slave. I hesitate to say that I genuinely enjoyed it, because it’s clearly meant to be an informative, almost ‘improving’ film, rather than a piece of honest-to-goodness entertainment. But, rather than simply being a guided tour of atrocities and horrors, it attempts to be a serious portrait of a still-iconic figure, as well as touching on some of the complexities of the civil rights movement not usually paid much attention.

There is, for example, an examination of the somewhat factionalised nature of the movement itself, with King and his followers being treated warily by other local groups in the Selma area: their complaint is that King’s group is all about publicity and headlines, rather than the long haul of grass-roots activisim. The antipathy between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is also touched upon (the latter appears briefly as a character). So the film is not simply about heroic African Americans standing up to the Man (although there is, inevitably, an element of that). Nor is Dr King himself presented as a flawless living saint: Oyelowo does a fine job of capturing King’s remarkable oratorical style, but also depicts him as a man struggling to bear the burden of expectations placed upon him. The film touches gently upon the issue of some of King’s personal frailties, too.

That said, you could hardly call this an impartial portrait, nor would you really expect one, and the film reserves its anger for the forces of prejudice which King and the others must confront. The film constantly reminds the audience that the civil rights leadership was under non-stop FBI surveillance at this time, with King himself described as a ‘political and moral degenerate’ by J Edgar Hoover in one scene. Tim Roth, who really isn’t in the film very much, doesn’t seem to be making much attempt to find the humanity in Wallace, although Tom Wilkinson does his best to make Johnson understandable, if not entirely sympathetic.

This is a well-made film, thoughtful, with some good performances in it. But I suppose we must ask ourselves if it has itself been the issue of a racially-motivated snub: should it have been the subject of more critical praise and awards nominations? Well, obviously, it’s a hellishly subjective issue. Simply posing the question means you’re discussing the answer in a somewhat charged atmosphere.

To be honest, I think it’s quite brave of the academy not to nominate David Oyelowo for his performance, for playing Dr King is exactly the kind of role you would expect someone to get nominated for, provided they do a good job: not unlike Idris Elba for his performance as Nelson Mandela, in fact. One might almost get the sense that the academy would like to give awards to Mandela, or Dr King, or Stephen Hawking themselves, but they have to settle for awarding them by proxy instead. I am cynical enough to suspect that the main benefit of this for the academy is that it makes them look good, which is why, as I say, the decision not to nominate Oyelowo isn’t necessarily a bad one… but then again his performance is pretty impressive. It is, as I said, difficult to say.

To be honest, I think it may just be a case of bad timing: the academy clearly likes to appear to be a progressive and open-minded institution, but it doesn’t want to look like it has a fixation on a particular subject, and coming only twelve months after 12 Years a Slave probably hasn’t done Selma any favours. Giving top awards to two civil rights-themed films in succession isn’t the academy’s style.

And we have to ask ourselves whether we want awards to be given out based on principle, or achievement? Selma isn’t a bad film by any means, and its credentials and message are utterly laudable. It tells a story about an important moment in recent history, one which is still relevant half a century on. But I don’t think that in itself should be enough to guarantee the film nominations. This is a serious and heartfelt film, without any obvious weaknesses: but at the same time, it never quite soars, never completely surprises you. It’s a good film, and worth watching, if only for its insight into still-too-recent history. But a great film? Regrettably, no.

 

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It’s almost getting to the point where I feel obliged to apologise for the quantity of Woody Allen on this blog. On the other hand, the sheer length of Allen’s career as a writer and director means there’s no shortage of material: I suspect only a tiny handful of people could name every film he’s ever made, without recourse to some sort of reference material anyway. (Through a miscommunication last year I inadvertantly managed to tell a friend the local arthouse was reviving a zombie movie Allen had made in the 60s – no such beast exists, obviously – and they took it very much in their stride.)

At least on this occasion it is not a multi-stranded comedy-drama about the lives of affluent metropolitans, which at least makes it something of a novelty. No, today we are looking at Cassandra’s Dream, a film from 2007 and thus quite early in Allen’s tour grande period. This movie is really quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in his back catalogue, and really quite odd generally.

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Anyway. As the film opens we meet Ian and Terry, two brothers from London (they are played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, and if you think that casting those two as siblings makes big demands of the audience, you’re right). Ian is a fiercely ambitious entrepreneur, looking to establish himself in the hotel industry, and energetically wooing rising actress (and high-maintainance gel) Angela (Hayley Atwell). Terry is much more down to earth, working as a garage mechanic – but nursing a compulsive gambling habit that soon spins out of his ability to control it.

Needless to say, both brothers soon find themselves in desperate need of significant financial assistance, albeit for different reasons. Fortune seems to be smiling on them when their wealthy Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) comes to visit from the USA, as they are sure the blood ties of family will be enough to guarantee his help. But it seems that these ties cut both ways, for Uncle Howard is facing serious difficulties of his own: a former business associate, also currently in London, is due to testify against him in a court case, and a lengthy jail spell could folow. Uncle Howard’s offer is very straightforward: he will help the lads out with their various problems, but only if they silence the business associate. Permanently…

That’s all very well, you may be thinking, but why is it called Cassandra’s Dream? A fair question. Cassandra’s Dream is a boat which the brothers buy at the start of the film, and which – this is so obvious as a development it barely qualifies as a spoiler – is the setting for the events of the climax. It may be that there is a deeper intended significance to the name – classically, Cassandra was afflicted with prophetic dreams of calamity, which no-one ever paid any attention to, and there is a bit of a motif in the movie of various characters having nightmares – but, as happens with depressing frequency in late-period Woody Allen movies, the subtext is so vaguely articulated as to be impossible to be sure of.

However, this would fit, as the movie is clearly intended as a sort of morality tale, concerned with issues like guilt and ambition and family allegiance. The story has a simplicity which suggest the director is going for a ‘classic’ feel, although this may also have something to do with the fact that, working in London, he’s several thousand miles out of his comfort zone.

Because the thing about Cassandra’s Dream is that it never really looks or feels like the 38th film from a hugely experienced, lauded and acclaimed director: it’s too much of a mixed bag for that. Allen has no ability to make his London-based characters and settings remotely authentic  – McGregor and Farrell wheel out their gor-blimey-guv’nah accents, but that’s all. And, with its settings of garages, pubs, and family kitchens, and its plot of somewhat-implausible faux-gangland hits, the result is bizarrely like the EastEnders omnibus.

Allen’s ability to attract a stellar cast remains undiminished, of course: Jim Carter turns up for a one-scene cameo, while Tamzin Outhwaite – quite a big name in British TV – essentially gets a walk-on in which her face is never clearly visible. The two stars are clearly really struggling, though, not just with their accents but with the stilted, clanging, hackneyed dialogue that comprises most of their scenes. ‘Once you cross the line, there’s no going back,’ declares McGregor at one point: this is presented as a moment of profound revelation. This is the stuff which really sorts out the men from the boys, and needless to say Tom Wilkinson is the only one who emerges looking good. (Well, Sally Hawkins is decent in what’s quite a small part as Farrell’s partner.)

However, however: while the dialogue and some of the performances are a little wobbly, the actual plot is solid enough – even if it takes its time getting where it needs to be in places. There are some genuinely tense moments and neat directorial touches along the way, and the cinematography is crisp and attractive. The impression that this isn’t your typical Woody Allen movie is added to by the presence of an orchestral score by Philip Glass – I can’t think of another that doesn’t feature either wall-to-wall jazz or classic standards. On the other hand, the Glass score, while obviously accomplished, often sounds too big and momentous for what often feels like a small-time story.

Cassandra’s Dream is not a terribly good movie, simply because virtually nothing about it rings true as a piece of drama. But Allen’s decision to craft the thing as a morality play, and as such slightly detached from reality anyway, means it is not unwatchable. The story keeps driving forward – never, it must be said, in a genuinely surprising manner – the cast are game, and it looks nice. And the very fact this is a Woody Allen film with scarcely a single one-liner in it does give it a sort of novelty value. But it’s a strange curiosity at best.

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When I was living in Asia, I spent a lot of time in the company of other ex-pats, and most of the time this was a very enjoyable experience. The only thing that sometimes angered me was the fact that some of my fellow visitors appeared to be treating the country in which we were living as some kind of vast theme park, existing more as a venue for them to have excitingly new and daring experiences than as a real place occupied by real people with real lives. To me this is about as bad as a blanket rejection of any kind of foreign experience, and it verges on the worst kind of poverty tourism.

I was reminded of all of this stuff by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a Magnificent Seven of veteran British acting talent is assembled for an undertaking which is intent on warming our hearts or dying in the attempt. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup play a collection of ageing English types, who are forced by the generally crappiness of modern life to relocate to a retirement hotel in Rajasthan, run by ambitious but clueless entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel). They are all there for various different reasons – Dench has been widowed, Wilkinson is on a deeply personal quest, Nighy and Wilton are financially embarrassed following some bad decisions, Smith is there for a hip replacement, and Pickup and Imrie are there seeking to put it about a bit. Needless to say their exposure to Indian life leads all of them to reassess their lives, view the world in a different light, etc etc etc.

Well, the cast is the major draw of this movie, which seems to be doing rather well – I couldn’t get into a showing at the arthouse and had to go and see it at one of the local multiplexes (recently converted from proper cinema to coffee-shop-with-movies-showing-in-the-back), which also seemed to be doing jolly good business. That a movie with these big names involved should do well is not a surprise – what’s slightly bemusing is how they got them all in the first place.

This is just a very long-winded way (sorry) of saying that the script is nowhere near as good as actors this talented deserve. Most of the best bits are in the trailer, and practically all of the really funny bits. I didn’t laugh much at all through most of this movie, and, to be perfectly honest, was slightly disturbed that other people did. A lot of the mirth-provoking material early on comes from Maggie Smith’s character, who is basically just a nasty bigot. I am sure the film-makers’ defence would be that she’s a silly comedy nasty bigot and that people are actually laughing at her rather than with her. I’m not so sure, I sensed a degree of warmth towards her coming from around me. Needless to say she is rehabilitated by her subcontinental experiences, along with everyone else.

Once everyone pitches up in India the film does become rather episodic, with some of the cast members dropping out of sight for quite long periods. Some of these threads are rather insubstantial – to be honest, the whole film is really incredibly slight when you step back and look at it properly. So we get Judi Dench giving matronly (and not at all patronising) advice to the workers in the world’s least believeable call centre, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie on the prowl, Tom Wilkinson doing something I’d better not spoil, Maggie Smith becoming less of a nasty bigot, and so on, prior to a vaguely mechanical and definitely predictable conclusion.

A lot of this is broad and knockabout stuff, not especially engaging but not actually offensive either, on its own terms, but the problem with this material is that it gets in the way of genuinely interesting and thoughtful stuff about some of the other characters. As one might expect, Judi Dench is particularly good in a slightly heavier role. However, it’s Tom Wilkinson who is the best thing in the movie: there’s a moment where Wilkinson gently expresses his incomprehension at another character’s refusal to engage with India in any positive way that is simply terrific. On the other hand, Bill Nighy really gets very little to do compared to the others, which was a bit disappointing.

This sort of leads us to one of the issues with the film, which is that some of these actors simply don’t look old enough to be considering life in a retirement community – Celia Imrie is still in her 50s, for crying out loud. More important, however, is the fact that the film is supposedly set in India, but could just as easily be occurring in Narnia.

If we’re discussing modern British movies about India, then two words slouch implacably towards the conversation and those words are Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel is in both movies (though here he’s playing much more of a stereotype), which makes the comparison virtually obligatory. Slumdog Millionaire is set in India, but treats it as a real place, where complex people live complicated, difficult lives: it doesn’t indulge in spurious exoticism. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exactly that – in this movie India is essentially a plot device, exposure to which allows the characters to indulge in a bit of cathartic self-realisation. Most of the Brits in this film are hardly rounded individuals, but they get a better deal than the Indians, who are virtually all ciphers.

And as a result, detached from reality and mostly bereft of any genuine sense of loss or pain, the film doesn’t earn the life-affirming pay-offs it’s clearly angling to achieve. The cast is very good, and mostly do the best they can with what they’re given: but what they’re given is rather ‘safe’ comedy and predictable, Richard Curtis-inflected emotional beats. One emerges with the overwhelming impression that, for these characters, India’s importance is solely as a catalyst for Emotional Growth – and in the modern world, as a basis for a movie, that’s surely every bit as blinkered and outdated as any of the attitudes we’re supposed to laugh at when they’re produced by Maggie Smith’s character. A slight movie, made worth seeing by the actors, Tom Wilkinson in particular. But only just.

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Every now and then a film comes along that has taken a somewhat lackadaisical approach to actually getting to the screen: it’s been hanging around in editing suites or on shelves, not remotely bothered by the need to get out there and actually start recouping investments. Usually, it must be said, when a movie takes a very long time to show its face it is out of a very appropriate sense of embarrassment: everyone was surprised when the Nicole Kidman-fronted remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers took two years to get released, until they saw it, at which point it became rather obvious why they’d been putting it off and putting it off.

Having seen John Madden’s The Debt, I am somewhat mystified as to why this film has also dragged its feet, because it has nothing to be ashamed of. It was shot a couple of years ago (in the meantime one of the cast has gone on to become somewhat noteworthy for appearing in the most lucrative movie of all time) and part of me wonders if the delay has been to allow film writers to get themselves set for its appearance, as any useful discussion of the story sort of requires you to be on your game (and possibly take a run-up).

Mainly this is due to the film’s back-and-forth narrative structure, which ping-pongs between the middle Sixties and the late Nineties, and the decision to employ different actors to play the two versions of the protagonists. It’s very difficult to go into much detail about the later section of the story without ruining the film, so I’ll keep me big fat mouth shut about it (well, mostly).

In the Nineties section, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play celebrated former Mossad agents, whose fame rests on a mission into Soviet East Berlin thirty years previously. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas at this point, their assignment (when not contending with incipient romantic tensions between them) is to confirm the identity of a man suspected of being a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau, and then bring about his extraction to Israel where he can stand trial. As the man in question (played by Jesper Christensen) is working as a gynaecologist, making the ID requires Chastain’s character to go under cover rather more intimately than she might wish, but soon the go-ahead is given for the trio to move against the man. However, all does not go according to plan and the team find themselves forced into hiding and having to deal with a highly intelligent and utterly ruthless prisoner…

And to say more really would spoil the story of this film, which would be a shame as this is a quality production. I have to say that the earlier section of the story is rather more effective than the later part – there is genuine tension and excitement here, and some well-staged low key action. All of the main actors in this film are good, but I thought Worthington was particularly impressive, and Jesper Christensen (who seems to specialise in ‘creepy’) was also extremely effective as their target.

For some reason the later stages of the film fall a little flat by comparison and I genuinely can’t figure out why. Possibly they lack the claustrophobic tension of the East Berlin setting, or the strength of the relationships between the three main characters (they are separated in this section).

I’m not sure if the decision to recast the characters rather than whip out the aging make-up was necessarily the right one. As I said, everyone is good, and unlike some critics I had no trouble remembering who was who amongst the leads, but it can’t help but kick one out of the movie just a little to see Jessica Chastain suddenly turn into Helen Mirren. There’s also a slight problem in that part of the plot revolves around supporting characters living under false names, and it’s very difficult to be sure of who’s supposed to be who when they don’t necessarily have the same face as before (and not everyone is played by a different actor, which just seems mildly odd).

Based on an Israeli movie, I can’t help but suspect that the original version must have been slightly more powerful – the themes here, of guilt and duty and responsibility, never quite struck home with me. But the portrayal of people being driven apart by shared experiences rather than drawn together, and the crushing effect of regret over many years – these things worked well for me. The direction is efficient and the script effective, and this is a well-mounted film.

We’ve had quite a few thrillers that have been either retro or had period settings over the last few weeks – some of them extremely mannered and thoughtful, others much more gritty and action-based. The Debt does a very good job of having something for everyone in it. In the end this is an intelligent drama for adults rather than anything else, but that’s not to say its thriller trappings are entirely for show: it works quite impressively as both.

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