THE GENTLEMEN (2020)

Review by LL Soares

Director Guy Ritchie has had a pretty exciting career so far. I remember seeing his feature film debut, LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) when it first came out, and being blown away by it. He followed that with another very British gangster film called SNATCH (2000), which kept the momentum going. He made a few more gangster films, including REVOLVER (2005) and ROCKNROLLA (2008) before Hollywood beckoned (in this time period, he also made the remake of the Lina Wertmuller film, SWEPT AWAY, 2002, starring his wife at the time, Madonna, which I still haven’t seen). In Hollywood, his career became a rollercoaster of sorts, first with the successful SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, which I quite liked (along with its sequel SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS, 2011) and then on to such films as THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015, a flop starring Armie Hammer, which I didn’t think was completely awful) to KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017, ANOTHER King Arthur movies? Haven’t we had enough of those?) and the live-action version of Disney’s ALADDIN (2019). By the time this last one came out, I was wondering if I’d ever want to see another Guy Ritchie film again.

So when he returned to his roots and made another British gangster film in the spirit of his first films, called THE GENTLEMEN (2020), it caught me quite by surprise. It’s all here, the convoluted, puzzle-like plotting, the way-out characters, the  profane and often hilarious dialogue. This R-rated treat is pretty much the exact opposite of something like ALADDIN. And it’s got a pretty amazing cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam (from SONS OF ANARCHY, 2008 – 2014), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from DOWNTON ABBEY), Jeremy Strong (from the current HBO series SUCCESSION),  Henry Golden (from CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), and Eddie Marsan (from the shows JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, 2015, and RAY DONOVAN, 2013-2020).

For most of THE GENTLEMEN’s running time, it’s a story being told by Hugh Grant’s sleazy (and terrific) tabloid reporter, Fletcher, to Charlie Hunnam’s gangster, Ray. Fletcher was assigned by his editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig deep in the dirt for an expose of Ray’s boss, Mickey Pearson (McConaughey), and he’s trying to show Ray how much dirt he got and offer Ray a chance to buy the story from him before it gets published. You know, your typical sleazy blackmail plot. But Fletcher is a great story teller, and his story was so many interesting players.

Mickey Pearson, to begin with, is a billionaire American living in England who has cornered the market on marijuana production, by partnering with a lot of Britain’s upper class. But he wants to retire and enjoy life, so he’s considering selling his empire to fellow American, Matthew (Jeremy Strong). But Asian kingpin Dry Eye (Henry Golden) gets wind of it and makes Pearson an offer of his own, which Pearson rejects. Dry Eye takes this personally and plans revenge. His plans also drag his boss, Lord George (Tom Wu) into the growing turmoil.

Meanwhile, Coach (Colin Farrell) finds out that the boys who hang out at his gym (and look up to him) have raided one of Pearson’s secret grow spots, and filmed it, and, when he realizes it was owned by Pearson, goes out of his way to apologize and smooth matters over, before Pearson finds out who it was and kills his “boys.”

There’s also a storyline about a rich girl who’s become a junkie, and Pearson sending his right-hand man Ray to go bring her back to her family, which results in a death that gets the notice of some Russian gangsters. And Dry Eye’s plans also involve Pearson’s wife, the hard-as-steel Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all-women garage for rich people’s cars.

There are a lot of balls being juggled here, and Ritchie does a great job keeping them moving at all times. The script is smart and kinetic, the performances dead on (McConaughey is the eptiome of cool here, Grant seems to really enjoy being a blackmailing sleazebag, and Farrell is completely earnest as he tries to right some wrongs, but frankly everyone here is terrific). Ritchie wrote the screenplay (based on a “story by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies”) as well.

It’s also got a soundtrack by Christopher Benstead, along with classic songs by Cream, Roxy Music, Can, and The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” which takes us out to the end credits.

THE GENTLEMEN isn’t going to appeal to everyone. The foul language is non-stop and there’s gonna be some violence (of course), but I found it an instance of Guy Ritchie re-establishing his cred as the modern King of British Gangster Flicks. No one has taken his crown yet, and he’s still using it.

The crazy twists and turns of the plot, the sometimes over-the-top characters and their equally over-the-top dialogue, all add up to one hell of an entertaining movie. And if you’re a long-time fan of Ritchie’s early films, like I am, you’re going to be even more excited about this one.

It’s a terrific antidote to Hollywood Blockbuster fare like ALADDIN, that’s for sure.

I give THE GENTLEMEN ~ three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE GENTLEMEN ~ 3 ½ knives!

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Martin Scorsese and THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Movie Review by LL Soares

I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Scorsese lately. I grew up on his films, and aside from about three of his features (not counting documentaries), I’ve seen them all. Even when he disappoints me, I look forward to his next one.

THE IRISHMAN is as good a reason as any to look back on his career.

It stars classic Scorsese mainstay Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, who starts out as just another guy driving a truck and and becomes the confidante of mobsters and the powerful union president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who led the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Frank delivers meat in a refrigerated truck, and when he sees gangster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) in a restaurant, he decides to pitch a deal where he delivers meat to him at a reduce rate. Basically, he’s stealing from his employer to get in good with a mobster. When one of his shipments “disappears” and he’s hauled before his bosses, Frank, defended by union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) refuses to give names and refuses to admit he did anything wrong. This impresses Bufalino, who passes Frank’s name to his cousin, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

Russell and Frank cross paths and soon Frank is working directly for the gangster. He becomes an enforcer and hit man, showing an early aptitude for getting rid of “problems” without any fuss. Frank moves up the ladder, becoming one of Russell’s most trusted associates. Eventually, he is assigned to keep an eye on the volatile Jimmy Hoffa. The union has an awful lot of money, and the mobsters want to make sure he continues to keep their interests in mind.

Frank becomes Hoffa’s right-hand man, while also remaining loyal to his bosses, including Russell, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and “Fat” Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi).

Hoffa is the most powerful union boss in the country, but not everything is smooth sailing. There’s a younger guy who wants a piece of Hoffa’s empire named Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, who was excellent as Al Capone in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE). Tony Pro is a new kind of mobster, brash and outspoken, and Hoffa takes an instant dislike to him. The thing is, the mob likes Tony Pro, and this also gets under Hoffa’s skin.  He’s especially angered when he sets up a meeting in Florida with Tony Pro, and Tony is late. He also shows up in shorts, which pisses Hoffa (who is in a full suit) off no end. These are acts of disrespect. From this point on, Hoffa pretty much refuses to work with Tony Pro, and does everything he can to undermine the guy.

Hoffa and Provenzano’s rivalry just gets more heated when they both end up in prison together. Hoffa is convicted of fraud, and Pro is convicted of racketeering. They have a meeting soon after Tony Pro shows up in the same prison, and Hoffa explains that while he himself won’t be losing any money due to the conviction, Tony Pro will be losing over a million. When Tony Pro gets angry about this, Hoffa takes obvious pleasure in screwing him over. This bad blood will just get worse over time.

When he gets out of prison, Hoffa tries to reclaim the presidency of the teamsters, but things are different now. He refuses to work with Tony Pro when he gets out, and he refuses to go along with the “suggestions” of the gangsters, thinking that he is above them and answerable to no one. In the long run, its Hoffa’s pride that makes him offend too many dangerous people, leading to his infamous “disappearance,” which was never solved (but which is revealed here, according to Sheeran’s story).

THE IRISHMAN is based on the book I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES by Charles Brandt, about the life of the real Frank Sheeran, adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian (who also wrote AWAKENINGS, 1990, GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002, and MONEYBALL, 2011)

First off, the acting here is impeccable. After a lot of mediocre (and bad) comedies, De Niro may have taken some hits to his reputation, but if there’s any doubt he still has the chops, THE IRISHMAN puts them to rest (he was also very good in a much smaller role this year in JOKER). While I found it odd at first that De Niro was playing a guy of Irish descent, that soon became irrelevant as the movie unfolds. Sheeran is a stoic guy who follows orders without hesitation, and who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, which is why the bosses trust him. He’s the strong, silent type, so it’s not the flashiest role of De Niro’s career, but it’s a strong performance, and it’s fascinating to watch this man’s life unfold over time.

Joe Pesci is amazing as Russell Bufalino. Russell is a soft-spoken but powerful man who is not questioned. There’s a hint of obvious menace to him, but he’s got a poker face and rarely raises his voice. Mostly he’s very subtle, and he’s the exact opposite of the character of Tommy DeVito that Pesci played in GOODFELLAS (1990). This is the kind of understated performance that leaves a big impression, and it made me sad that Pesci has made so few films in recent years. He’s one of the best actors we’ve got, and THE IRISHMAN made me want to see more of him.

Al Pacino is terrific as Hoffa, a loose cannon who thought he was bigger than the men he was working for, and ultimately, who refused to compromise when someone got on his bad side. His stubbornness and hot-tempered personality eventually proves to be his undoing, and Pacino does a great job with the role. He’s always a joy to watch, and here is no different.

A lot of the supporting players are also terrific, especially Stephen Graham as the brash Tony Pro, and Anna Paquin in a small but pivotal role as Frank’s daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child). Much has been made of the fact that she has just one line of dialogue in the film, but despite that she also leaves a big impression here. As a child, she was clearly Frank’s favorite, and while she was quiet and shy as a kid, she was always observing her father and his associates. A revelatory theme throughout the film is how Frank’s associates try to win her over throughout her life. Russell scares her; despite his soft tone, she’s nervous around him, refusing to say anything. Later, when Frank becomes Hoffa’s constant companion, there is a strong bond between Hoffa and Peggy, as he gets her to loosen up, eat ice cream, and laugh. Hoffa becomes kind of a buddy to little Peggy. It’s a silent hammer that falls when Peggy realizes that her father was responsible for Hoffa’s death, and it’s something she can never forgive him for, denying him her love as he gets older and starts to regret some of his decisions. Their estrangement is devastating to Frank.

Other good performance include Ray Romano (who impresses me more and more as a dramatic actor), Bobby Cannavale, and Jesse Plemons (of the shows FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and Todd in BREAKING BAD) as Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien. I also liked Louis Cancelmi as Sally Bugs and Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo. There are also a few interesting cameos, including musician and actor Steven Van Zandt (THE SOPRANOS) as singer Jerry Vale and comedian Jim Norton as the late, great Don Rickles.

The script is solid, and for the most part Scorsese’s direction is perfect.

Which brings me to my one gripe about THE IRISHMAN, which, while not a deal-breaker, is something that has annoyed me before.

First off, the movie is three and a half hours, and it feels it. The first two hours or so go by smoothly, but by the third hour, I was starting to feel a little fatigued. The movie has a leasurely pace throughout, and a lot of the time it works, because the characters are so good, but it drags a little toward the end. For a while now, I’ve felt that Scorsese’s films (since 2000) have been too long, on the verge of being overindulgent. The first time I felt this was when I saw GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). There always seem to be aspects of his later films that could be tightened and cut down to correct the pacing issue, but Scorsese being Scorsese, I’m sure no one wants to suggest that to him. But this lack of tight editing has taken away from my enjoyment of some of his films.

THE IRISHMAN played briefly in theaters, so it could qualify for Oscar nominations (which I think it will certainly get), and then it went directly to Netflix, where I saw it (it has been available there since November 27th). If you saw it in a theater, then I’m guessing the slow parts (and overlong run time) were more of an issue. On Netflix, it’s easy enough to just take a break and watch the film in two installments. If you watch it that way, the pacing thing isn’t as big a deal, although it’s still noticeable.

While I consider this a flaw, I do not see it as a fatal one. There are enough things that are great about THE IRISHMAN that it can overcome my small gripe. I still loved it. And after I saw it, I found myself thinking about it more, which is the sign of a great film. It stays with you.

THE IRISHMAN is not my favorite film of 2019—some films I enjoyed more include Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR—but it is an excellent motion picture and definitely worth seeking out. It’s a work of genius. I just thought it could be a little tighter.

Which brings me back to my original ruminations about Scorsese’s career. The man has given us some of the best films of modern Hollywood. His output has been nothing short of amazing. From his roots working for Roger Corman on films like BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), to the early days of MEAN STREETS (1973), and the bonafide classic TAXI DRIVER (still my favorite of his films) from 1976, to the powerful punch of films like RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990), other masterpieces like THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) and CASINO (1995), through the underrated small films like AFTER HOURS (1985) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999), through the controversy of the underrated (and very sincere) THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and overlooked gems like NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977) and ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974). This is one helluva career we’re talking about. Add in documentaries like the definitive THE LAST WALTZ (1978), one of the best music docs ever, and his film preservation work and history-of-cinema docs like A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995) and his history of Italian film, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (1999). All I can say is “wow.”

I’m not as big a fan of his later films since the turn of the century, but I really enjoyed HUGO (2011), which was such an interesting departure for him, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), which was so entertaining that I’d add to the list of his all-time best.

Through it all, I eagerly went wherever he took me, and even if a few times I was disappointed, I always knew I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. One of the all-time greats. And that hasn’t changed. THE IRISHMAN confirms that. It’s the work of a master, without a doubt. And he’s still going strong at 77. I am looking forward to whatever else he makes, and I hope there are more masterpieces to come.

I give THE IRISHMAN ~ four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE IRISHMAN — 4 knives!

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I missed this one when it was in theaters, but, like another crime film from 2018, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this one on streaming. And it’s another case of a movie I wish I’d seen on the big screen.

It’s the near future, and Los Angeles has become engulfed in violent riots. The core of all the unrest is water. There isn’t enough to go around, and only the rich have free access to it. Armed police stalk the streets, ready to take on protestors. The city is pretty much a war zone.

In the middle of all this is the Hotel Artemis. Think of it like the Continental in the JOHN WICK movies, a place where criminals can go for sanctuary, and where violence against each other is against the rules. Except where the Continental offers lush rooms and safety, the Hotel Artemis is really a hospital for bad guys and fugitives to get healed when there’s nowhere else they can turn.

The Artemis is run by a woman simply known as The Nurse (Jodie Foster, the iconic actress who’s also in TAXI DRIVER, 1976, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991, and so much more), with the help of her right-hand man, the intimidating orderly Everest (Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies). That’s it for hospital staff. The rest is up to machines, including some 3D printers.

When people show up at the Artemis, they aren’t called by their names. They use nicknames, based on the rooms they’re staying in. So when two brothers show up, one is called Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown, of the TV show THIS IS US) and Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry, “Paper Boi” from ATLANTA). They’re coming from a bank robbery gone bad, and Honolulu is seriously injured by a gunshot wound. He needs a new liver. Luckily, Waikiki has payed up his dues, and they’re allowed into the Hotel Artemis. Immediately, the Nurse gets Honolulu on an operating table and uses his DNA, and a 3D printer, to start making him a new liver. In the meantime, he’s in critical condition and can’t be moved.

But they’re not the only “guests” this night. There’s also Nice (Sofia Boutella of THE MUMMY, 2017, ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017, and Gasper Noe’s CLIMAX, 2018), a hitwoman recovering from an injury, and an arms dealer called Acapulco (Charlie Day of HORRIBLE BOSSES, 2011, and the great TV comedy IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA), who’s on the verge of leaving. He’s even called a helicopter to come pick him up.

There’s some tension between the loudmouth Acapulco and Nice, and then Waikiki shows up, at first defending Nice, then realizing he doesn’t really need to. She can take care of herself. But this sort of minor tension gets ratcheted up tenfold when a new guest arrives at the hospital, the crime kingpin of L.A., known as the Wolf, but once he gets to the Artemis, they call him Niagra (Jeff Goldblum, also in THE FLY, 1986, the first JURASSIC PARK, 1993, and INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996, ).

There’s also an injured cop named Morgan (Jenny Slate, of OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014, GIFTED, 2017, and recently in VENOM, 2018, as well as tons of TV shows), who is found outside the Artemis and who the Nurse demands be brought inside, even though it’s against the rules. Everest hesitates, but in the end, he does whatever the Nurse tells him to do. Morgan has ties to the Nurse’s life before she ran this place, but she’s taking a risk in helping her. Police officers are strictly off limits here, and are not even supposed to know that the Artemis exists.

Niagra, by the way, is accompanied by his hotheaded son, Crosby (Zachary Quinto, of HEROES, 2006-2010, Spock in the recent STAR TREK movies, and most recently as Charlie Manx in the AMC series NOS4A2), who makes a lot of demands, but who is not allowed past the front gate. He also has a bunch of gun-toting thugs with him. Crosby, whose whole existence seems to dedicated to “pleasing Daddy,” makes it clear that if his father doesn’t live through the night, things are going to get very uncomfortable for the Nurse. And he’s a real threat, because Niagra is the owner of the Hotel Artemis, and should anything happen to him, his son will take over. Both of them are violent men, but Niagra is at least reasonable.

There you have the set-up. The rest is about how these characters interact, and there are lots of twists and turns along the way, including double-crosses and murder attempts. All while the Nurse tries to save lives, with the help of her hulking assistant.

HOTEL ARTEMIS was written and directed by Drew Pearce. It’s his first feature film as a director, after directing several shorts and music videos. Before this movie, he was best known as one of the writers of IRON MAN 3 (2013) and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015). He was also one of the writers of the upcoming FAST AND FURIOUS spinoff, HOBBS & SHAW, coming to theaters this August. I’m not a big fan of IRON MAN 3, but I think HOTEL ARTEMIS is really good, with its emphasis on interesting characters, and it moves at a steady pace. It’s also a welcome relief from movie franchises involving superheroes or action stars.

Jodie Foster, of course, is the heart of the movie, and she’s terrific here. Looking old and tired, she is determined to be a beacon in the storm for these mostly sleazy customers. Her helping Morgan also shows that she has a human side, something she may have tried to distance herself from. Dave Bautista, who is one of my favorite things about the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, is also perfectly cast as Everest. He’s not given enough to do, but he’s enjoyable every time he’s on screen.

The rest of the cast is also solid. Boutella, Brown, and Henry have all been popping up in a lot of movies lately, and this one lets them show how reliable they are as actors. Well, maybe not so much for Brian Tyree Henry, who isn’t given much to do beside lay on the hospital bed and complain. Quinto (who is currently Charlie Manx on the AMC series NOS4A2) is also well cast. Goldblum (his identity was kept as a surprise when the movie first came out; I figure enough time has gone by so that this is no longer a spoiler) is great at playing sleazy dudes who demand your attention when they enter a room.

I really enjoy this one and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and was thinking of checking it out. I give HOTEL ARTEMIS three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HOTEL ARTEMIS ~~ 3 ½ knives

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

This one really surprised me. I was going to see BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYLE in the theater last year when it first came out, but for some reason I didn’t. And then the reviews I read were mixed, so I didn’t go out of my way to track it down, until it finally came to cable (HBO) recently. The thing is, I regret not seeing it on the big screen, because BAD TIMES deserves the full theater-going experience.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previous made THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011) and was a writer for the series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), ANGEL (2003-2004) and LOST (2005-2008), it shows us once again that Goddard knows how to assemble a compelling story, and the characters who are part of it.

The El Royale is a once-fancy motel/hotel that has the distinction of being on the border between California and Nevada. One half of the building resides in California, and the other in Nevada, which means there are different rules for each (mainly alcohol laws and sales tax). When you enter the lobby, it looks like a hotel with the sign-in desk and bar, but the rooms look a lot more like separate motel rooms. In the 60s, this place was a big deal, but now it’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t do the same volume of business anymore. In fact, it’s pretty much empty by the time our characters start showing up.

One stormy night, several unusual guests show up at the El Royale. Jeff Bridges (of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998 and TRUE GRIT, 2010) plays Father Daniel Flynn, an old priest with a graying beard and occasional memory problems, who has come to the hotel to search for something. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, also in director Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS, 2018) is a singer whose career never really took off, who is on tour and is booked to sing at a nearby nightclub. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, MAD MEN, 2007-2015, and BABY DRIVER, 2017) is a vacuum salesman, who soon is revealed to be an FBI agent working for J. Edgar Hoover (Hoover vacuum, get it). A 20-something smart-alec named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2015, and SUSPIRIA, 2018) shows up, with a secret companion (Cailee Spaeny, PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING and VICE, both 2018) in tow. The only person we see actually working at the hotel is manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman, LEAN ON PETE, 2017 and THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT, 2018). All of these people are not what they seem to be, and have secrets that will unfold over time.  Some of them will survive until morning, and some won’t.

By the time Chris Hemsworth (THOR from the Marvel movies, of course) shows up as a charismatic cult leader, the tension ratchets up a lot.

The characters are well-developed using effective dialogue and flashbacks. I thought Goddard’s script was solid and the crime elements handled well.  There are some surprises along the way, and the performances are excellent. Of particular note are Bridges and Erivo, the latter of which does some very nice soul singing in some scenes. And Hemsworth is perfect as the swaggering Billy Lee.

This movie didn’t seem to get much attention when it first came out, but it’s definitely worth a viewing. Hopefully you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. I think this one would have made it to my top 10 list of 2018 if I’d seen it in time.

I give BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE a rating of four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE – 4 knives!

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