Mockingjay: Part 1

Turns a political struggle into something thrillingly personal.

The Beat Beneath My Feet

A toe-tapping indie that is, quite simply lovely.


An extraordinary true tale made disappointingly ordinary.

The Battle of the Five Armies

"Why does it hurt so much?" Because the rest of it felt so real.

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Film review: White God Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 27 February 2015 13:26

Director: Kornél Mundruczó Cast: Zsófia Psotta Certificate: 15

Rise of the Planet of the Dogs. If your ears have already perked up, then White God is for you.

The Hungarian film takes the suspense, humour and scares of sci-fi and combines them with, well, dogs. 13 year old Lili loves her pet, Hagen. But when her father refuses to look after the mutt - "mixed-breed", she corrects him - Hagen ends up a stray on the streets.

While she attends band rehearsals and sneaks out to search for her pal, Hagen falls in with a pack of wild dogs - and even wilder humans. He is quickly kidnapped by dog-fighters, who force him into the backstreet ring along with other, unfortunate animals.

Eventually, though, something snaps.

Director Kornél Mundruczó doesn't shy away from the nastiness of it all; the dog fighting sequences are so brutal they make Amores Perros look like The Aristocats. But that graphic approach is even truer when it comes to the second half of the film: an uprising that's part-fable, part-social commentary and 100 per cent terrifying.

The Hungarian hounds storm through the deserted streets - a eerily stunning spectacle that opens the film and prompts you to wonder why on earth man's best friend has become his worst nightmare. Zsófia Psotta's young girl glides through the chaos serenely on a bicycle; a sight that's at once both amusingly surreal and breathtakingly surprising. Mundruczó brings real flair to proceedings, cueing up horror film tropes galore, as Hagen gets his own back. But where footsteps in a corridor or silhouettes in doorways could be played for laughs, the earnest Psotta - and the very immediate threat of the non-CGI beasts - give this a chilling plausibility and a pointed bite.

A cautionary tale about the abuse of animals, Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber's screenplay, it's an unabashedly feral thriller that gnashes and thrashes its way through your nervous system, until climaxing with a bizarre, beautiful final shot that blares a haunting horn over the sea of rabid hunters. Rise of the planet of the dogs? The Birds with teeth? Homeward Bound for adults? From its haunting images to its fervent love of trumpets, White God is a monster all of its own. Paws-itively brilliant.

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The Oscar Nomnomnom Challenge 2015: The Great British Predict Off Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 20 February 2015 07:07

Right. There are just over 48 hours until the 2015 Oscars, so you know by now who's going to win, right? Right?

In which case, you have no excuse not to enter this year's Oscar Nomnomnom Challenge. The aim of the competition? Guess who will win what at this year's Academy Awards. The prize for getting the most predictions right? Cupcakes. Oscar Nomnomnoms for Oscar Nomnomnoms. Simple.

The rules are barely non-existent: all you have to do is write down your guesses for all Oscar categories and send them to me by 11:59 on Sunday 22nd February. Entries can be tweeted (a photo of your list) using the hashtag #OscarNomnomnom, or you can just send an email to nomnomnom[at]

Apologies for the short notice, folks. I know it's not very long to come up with a list of expected winners, but I've been somewhat distracted from my Oscar Nomnomnom duties by doing stuff over at But I can guarantee that there will be cupcakes made between now and the ceremony on Sunday. I can also guarantee that they will bear some resemblance to this year's Oscar nominees. I cannot guarantee, however, that they will be edible. For that, you'll have to ask Joe Cunningham, who has won the competition for the past three years in a row.

For a taster of what you can win, here are last year's Oscar Nomnomnom cakes, from Gravity to The Hobbit.

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Film review: Jupiter Ascending Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 05 February 2015 13:32

For a film a called Jupiter Ascending, Jupiter spends a lot time falling from things.

At the start, Jupiter Jones is a cleaner in Chicago who discovers that she is actually a princess - mostly thanks to the explosive arrival of former soldier Caine (Channing Tatum), who stops a gang of aliens from trying to kill her. Part wolf and all man, he has pointy ears, a goatee worthy of Murray from Flight of the Conchords and hover boots. He's the perfect fantasy romantic interest - except for the fact that he's caught up in a war between the members of the universe's richest royals, the Abrasax family, who are all squabbling over whom inherits a precious resource.

On the surface, The Wachowskis' film appears to be impressively forward-thinking: a female lead, an anti-capitalist plot, an open embrace of inter-species relations, a surprising decision not to kill Sean Bean off in the opening act, and even a large chunk of screen time devoted to flying footwear, which is sorely underrepresented in modern cinema. Underneath it all, though, is a tale that's old-fashioned in all the wrong ways.

The Wachowskis deliver the eye-popping array of galactic cities, impossible gadgets and swooping shoot-outs with the colour and imagination of kids at an old-school matinee. But all the cor-blimey CGI in the universe can't give life to their script, which revolves around the biggest waste of a female character since that blonde one from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Jupiter is meant to be a protagonist to cheer on, as she claims her title and upsets the plans of evil monarch Balem Abrasax (Redmayne). But she spends almost all of her time in danger, waiting for Channing Tatum's hero to rescue her. If she isn't falling from a high object, she's climbing up a ladder so she's ready to fall from a high object - a state of perpetual peril that robs her of agency in her own story.

That lack of substance leaves you little to engage with, unless you really like people falling off things or blokes with floating trainers. Equally bad is that it leaves the screenplay with no way to develop, instead descending into a string of escalating carnage: a series of set pieces with bigger guns and taller ladders. Every scene seems to end in one of two ways: a ship crashing into something, or another ship miraculously appearing to ferry people away to the next. When it turns out that destruction on Earth can be fixed in the blink of an eye, any stakes go out the window.

Through it all, Kunis does her best to give her princess some depth, but with no impact on the events around her, her lack of dimensions leaves you looking elsewhere for fun characters and coming up short. Sean Bean's gruff army veteran is mired in duff dialogue - "Bees are programmed to recognise royalty," he says, with a straight face - and Eddie Redmayne's whispering villain is hilariously awful. The only thing left to admire is Tatum's lupine lover. And his magic shoes.

The costumes are certainly shiny and the hair suitably gravity defying, but sadly, no amount of Flash Gordon retro sparkle can make this enjoyable. It's important to appreciate a film as the type of movie it aims to be. Jupiter Ascending, though, doesn't aim to be dumb and formulaic: it aims to be operatic and exciting, with a female right at its centre. A brief interlude in a Kafka-esque office building gives you a glimpse of what might have been. As it stands, Jupiter Ascending is a great hover boots movie, but it's a duff anything else movie. By the time you start picking apart the world's internal logic (how do Caine's hover boots work after he's put on a spacesuit?), you realise that you've completely disconnected from what's on screen.

The result is a dazzling, but painfully dated tale of a damsel in distress that has everything in reverse. If you play Jupiter Ascending backwards, it's the story of a woman who is repeatedly abandoned by a guy in dangerous situations but finds her own way out, before ultimately deciding to make her own living as a cleaner. If you play it forwards, it's a dull disappointment.

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SpongeBob SquarePants officially wins the Internet this week. Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 03 February 2015 08:00

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Film review: Son of a Gun Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 29 January 2015 07:27

Director: Julius Avery
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Alicia Vikander, Brenton Thwaites
Certificate: 15

Son of a gun! When was the last time you heard anyone say that? It would fit right in with Julius Avery's film, which is full of equally clunky chunks of dialogue.

"Things are not what they seem," warns public enemy number one, Brendan, to prison newbie JR (Thwaites). Then he gets out a chess set and begins an unsubtle metaphor about thinking ahead of your opponent. "You can get checkmate in four," offers JR.

Taken under the convict's wing, the teen soon finds himself assisting in an escape and a heist. But can he really trust his mentor? Can he fit in with the hardened criminals? And who will win that all important game of chess?

Things unfold in a predictably unpredictable fashion, as JR's coming of age journey takes us from Starred Up-like jail time to Godfather-like gangster drama via film noir-like forbidden romance; a mix of genre tropes that sounds haphazard.

But things are not what they seem.

What could be cheesy or uneven on the page works surprisingly well on the screen, thanks to an excellent match of people in front of and behind the camera. Thwaites is ideal as the naive apprentice, ambitious but always looking slightly uncomfortable in his expensive leather jacket. Alicia Vikander is typically unrecognisable (and excellent) as token moll Tasha, torn between obeying orders and helping her lover.

It's Ewan McGregor, though, steals the show as the ruthless lawbreaker. It's a treat to see the actor play against type, complete with tattoos and facial hair. (Given the last time Ewan went full beard was Star Wars, seeing Obi-Wan shoot people is shockingly effective.) In fact, this feels like a return to form for the actor, who sinks his teeth into the meaty role with a physical presence he rarely displays - don't be surprised if you come out of the cinema thinking "McGregornaissance".

Avery, meanwhile, holds it all together with a pace that drives up the tension, even as the script threatens to veer off down a side road. He juggles aesthetics to match the changing tone, from the handheld indie opening that nails the oppressive claustrophobia of being behind bars to the riveting blockbuster-like escape sequence, complete with helicopter. His cast are with him every step, right down to the decision to retain Ewan's broad brogue accent, rather than try to emulate an Australian one; this is a film smart (and confident) enough to leave some questions unanswered, even as it spells out others a little too eagerly. Halfway between Hollywood and Australia, if this is a calling card for an upcoming filmmaker, it's an extremely gripping one. Checkmate? Not quite. But son of a gun, it's good.

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Film review: Testament of Youth Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Saturday, 24 January 2015 10:36
Director: James Kent Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan Certificate: 12A

Another British war movie marches on UK cinemas this month, but Testament of Youth brings a rousing new side of WWI to the screen. Based on the memoir of Vera Brittain, it arrives hot on the heels of The Imitation Game, yet couldn't be more different; this is poetry to its maths; literature to its science; female to its male.

While it might sound reductive to associate romantic verse with women, it's indicative of the time in which Vera lived. When she tells her parents (an enjoyably uptight Emily Watson and Dominic West) that she wants to go to Oxford instead of marry a fine, rich fellow, they strongly disapprove. But go she does, only to fall for Roland (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother (Kingsman's Taron Egerton), who shares her ambitions of becoming a professional writer. Inevitably, war breaks out - and Roland is shipped overseas, along with her brother and his friends.

Normally, at this point, we would follow the soldiers through the mud and blood of the trenches. But Testament of Youth lingers on British soil, as Vera struggles to cope with life - and a seemingly endless wave of loss. That oft-overlooked focus is what gives Testament of Youth, an otherwise tame movie, its emotional heft. Director James Kent shoots the period scenes solidly, but the cast elevates the movie above its practical presentation.

It helps that it is compromised of so many excellent young actors. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington and Jonathan Bailey all play the central men and their fresh faces only emphasise the tragedy of conflict. In the middle of it all, Alicia Vikander is breathtaking as Vera; beautiful, sad and almost trembling with a passion kept beneath the surface. Quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse, she is determined to match the male sacrifice on the field with a female act at home. The fact that we spend more time with her than on the front gives the occasional intrusions of brown and red on the bright domestic palette an impact that could well have been lacking from a more familiar tale. Indeed, Vera's seminal tale is less a war film (or even a wartime romance) and more a film about a woman striving to overcome the war; even Harington, Morgan and Vikander's love triangle, complete with letter-writing (that most perilous feature of period drama), manages to move.

By the end of WWI, as society appears not to have learned anything from the past four years, Vera delivers a heartfelt speech about grief, reconciliation and those left behind. It's undeniably stirring stuff.

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Film review: American Sniper Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 16 January 2015 07:44
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Certificate: 15

American Sniper opens in the middle of a war zone, as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is faced with the decision to shoot a child or not. It's a sight that is familiar to anyone who has seen the trailer - a moment so striking and tense that Clint Eastwood even dares to repeat it again later in the film.

For Kyle, though, that's the essence of his existence: making the call on whether to pull the trigger or not. He lives for it - rather than living for his wife and kids. As a result, she weeps at home for her lost husband, while the men in Islamabad glorify him as a legend. You can see why: with 255 kills to his name, Kyle's accurate eye keeps countless Americans alive in Iraq. "The most lethal sniper in US military history", declares the trailer.

But Eastwood's account of Kyle's service isn't the pro-military movie it might be mistaken for: starting with his Bible-reading childhood and lessons in bullying from his dad, Jason Hall's script examines what makes a man want to become a killing machine. Bradley Cooper is unrecognisable as Chris, beefing up to play the cowboy with a mostly silent performance; compared to his fast-talking roles in American Hustle and The A-Team, Bradley becomes increasingly withdrawn, turning what starts out as a curious drama into a pained account of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sienna Miller is equally superb as Taya, moving from flirtatious early romance to frustrated marriage. The pair work well together, selling their relationship over detached phone calls on Kyle's satellite phone, as he prepares to take another bad guy out. Eastwood presents the action with an immediacy that recalls Kathryn Bigelow's award-winning work with Jeremy Renner, keeping you on the edge of your seat without any gung-ho flourishes. It's an approach that gives events a deceptively complex air; Kyle may have the simplistic view of Iraqis as "savages", spurred on to ship out after seeing attacks on TV, but the movie is far from patriotic, paying as much, if not more, attention to psychological fallout as the movie's flag-waving finale.

The introduction of an enemy sniper may seem straight of an action movie playbook, but even his presence only serves to ramp up the tension - this is war as adrenaline, giving the audience a hit of the rush missing when Kyle's at home. Is he addicted the thrill? Haunted by those he couldn't save? Cooper's conflicted face is as sympathetic as it is sad. Think The Hurt Locker 2, in a good way.

Cooper spends his time with Miller and their baby staring at footage of kills on the telly, almost re-processing his experiences as video game-like entertainment. It's here that the bullets really fly. While Taya tends a kids' birthday party, Kyle perches, on edge, surveying the scene for potential risk; that opening scene stuck on a loop like a movie trailer he can't turn off.

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Film review: Foxcatcher Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 15 January 2015 10:03
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Certificate: 15

Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist. That's how John du Pont asks Mark Schultz to describe him in an awards speech. Taking the wrestler under his multi-million dollar wing, he invites Schultz into his world of status and superiority, one where such titles matter.

Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist. Schultz chews up the words as he echoes them, stumbling over the syllables. John repeats the phrase, a teacher drilling it into his pupil. The temptation is to laugh at such a bizarre class divide, but Foxcatcher stops you before you can get there, instead leaving you with a creeping sense of unease about its true story.

The majority of that comes from Steve Carell. The word "unrecognisable" may have become an all too recognisable description for his role, but the comedian delivers everything unnervingly straight. Setting his sights on winning the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, Carell's John stares at his seduced underling over his giant, hooked nose; part Roman Abramovich, part Dracula.

Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum's champion siblings are equally mesmerising. Tatum is brutal as the everyday contender, beating himself up over losses and failures, while he tries to meet the approval of his new benefactor. He isn't just a lunkhead; he lunks. He lunks about the ring. He lunks his head into a mirror. He lunks around on the sprawling du Pont estate, standing out against the opulence around him. Ruffalo, meanwhile, is generous to a fault, playing his kind-hearted brother with an understated air that gives Channing a chance to shine.

We first see them together in a practice session, grappling each other silently on the floor. Even without them saying a word, we learn everything we need to about their relationship, from David's loyalty to Mark's frustration at being in his older brother's shadow. They couldn't be more different to Carell's investor. Where they move fluidly together, he is awkward; where they come from average homes, he fills his halls with trophies and stuffed animals; where they have each other, he has his disapproving mother (a brilliantly cold Vanessa Redgrave).

The shifting dynamics of this unnatural trio becomes fascinating to observe - an examination of sports becoming corrupted by wealth and status. "You're a friend," he tells Mark, after he calls him Mr. du Pont. "My friends call me Eagle." Then he recruits David for a documentary about himself, ordering him to talk about how influential he is as a mentor.

The less things are played for humour, the scarier they become. How much of du Pont's actions are driven simply by a desire to have the brothers' intimacy, be it physical or emotional? Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman hint at several factors behind his and Mark's bond, while Schultz seems equally keen to have a father figure, but there are no answers explicitly offered - even as things end in an unexpected final act.

Throughout, director Bennett Miller captures everything with a detached air reminiscent of his earlier Capote, letting events unfold slowly with no signposts or psychological insight. That clinical approach will leave many feeling uninvolved, but the lack of engagement only adds to the troubling nature of du Pont's behavour; weeks later, you'll still be haunted by it, puzzling over what happened. Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

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Film review: Whiplash Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 15 January 2015 09:47

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Certificate: 15

Jazz is all about timing. Many people think it's solely made up on the spot, any-which-way-you-fancy improv, but a large chunk of it is also written down. There are chord progressions, standard songs, time signatures. If you want to make it over the top - to become really, truly great - you first have to understand the rules of engagement. The question, though, is how you go about it.

No one knows the law of the battlefield like Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The hardened conductor lords it over the Shaffer Conservatory's best big band with a fist of brass. Brass covered in blood. So when young pupil Andrew (Miles Teller) manages to sit on the group's coveted drum stool, he's determined to stay there - and Fletcher's determined to make him earn it.

How? Practice. You need to devote time so you can keep time - something that most films about music seem to forget. Usually, biopics present us with famous musicians who go through personal trials and tribulations, only to emerge the other side a fully-formed artist. It's a treat, then, to see a film about the practical nature of music, one that plays out like the messy underside of that artificial drum; the side with the snare on it.

"Are you rushing or dragging?" Fletcher interrogates Andrew, as they rehearse the titular track by Hank Levy. He asks over and over, like a drill sergeant auditioning for Full Metal Jacket: The Musical.

Simmons is terrifying, a wide-eyed brute whose foul-mouthed insults are as hilarious as they are intimidating. Anyone who has ever had a bullying music teacher - and (speaking from personal experience) they do exist, albeit not as extreme as this - will immediately recognise the fear of playing a wrong note and the disappointment of both letting your mentor down and, worse, yourself. But there is a universal intrigue to that process, the unseen way in which talent in any field develops - which, in Whiplash's hands, is arranged as a thrilling piece of physical, human drama. (In the words of Alan Partridge, crash, bang, wallop. What a video.)

Teller, who can play the drums in real life, is sensational as the eager student, a boy so focused that he shuts out all other concerns: family tensions and romantic dates are all ignored by him and the blinkered script follows suit. The only thing that matters here is the music.

Grimacing, laughing and sweating profusely, the young star is astonishing to watch in action - not only acting while playing the drums, but appearing out of sync believably enough to spark Fletcher's wrath. Together, the pair form a dazzling duet, riffing off each other, as Teller's drumming becomes tighter and their relationship changes key, from nasty humour to just plain nasty.

All the while, director Damien Chazelle keeps tempo - a breakneck metronome that, like Justin Hurwitz's score (including a selection of standards, such as Caravan), is a toe-tapping masterclass in precision. As Andrew gets better, pushed by this monster with a manuscript, Chazelle's camera shoots across the kit, bouncing off the hi-hat and toms with its own fascinating rhythm.

The pair, the screenplay reveals, are labouring under the (misunderstood) legend of Charlie Parker, who was given the push he needed to become Bird by Jo Jones lobbing a cymbal at his head. Aren't they missing the point altogether? After all, jazz needs soul as well as skill. It helps if all your body parts are intact too.

The director skilfully modulates the tone from unnerving comedy to sceptical horror, but the real crescendo occurs with the last movement, a blistering dash to the closing bar that finally throws all that rigid conducting out of the window and goes for a freewheeling rim-shot to the gut. Mention jazz to most people and they'll switch off, dismissing it as made-up noise. Whiplash, though, brings the house down every time. It's all about timing. And it doesn't miss a beat.

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Film review: Wild Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 14 January 2015 13:37

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon

"Homeward bound, I wish I was… Home, where my thought's escaping. Home, where my music's playing…"

There's something about true stories of human endurance that we, as an audience, find rewarding. While those have often been tales of claustrophobic survival in extreme conditions - All Is Lost, 127 Hours - there have also been movies about personal journeys and self-imposed isolation: Into the Wild, Tracks and The Way. What's impressive about Wild is that it genuinely moves - and does so in its own way.

The film follows Cheryl Strayed, who decides to hike all the way up America's 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail - effectively from Mexico to Canada - on her own. Her reason? To get away from it all.

It all, we discover through a series of flashbacks, consists of everything from unwanted pregnancies and deceased relatives to failed marriages. While this litany of mistakes could be cheesy or trite, though, Nick Hornby's script - based on Cheryl's own memoirs - ensures that Wild's tale become one not of self-penitence but self-appreciation. The decision to approach her sins of the past as part of what makes her who she is in the present frames her journey as something positive and uplifting.

Reese Witherspoon delivers a career-best performance as Cheryl. She manages the physical ordeal with convincing stamina, from losing toenails right down to her ungraceful, backpack-laden walk. But it's the honesty that she brings that strikes you, managing to act half her age for flashbacks featuring sexual encounters and tragic loss - supported excellently by Strayed's own daughter as a even younger Cheryl.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée stitches together the gentle revelations and geographical progression seamlessly, balancing between stubborn independence and habitual reliance upon convenience stores. The widescreen lensing captures the shifting snowy, sandy and woodland landscapes, but the movie is powered by a fantastic use of sound and music; each time a song is hummed by the people Cheryl meets mid-walk, it triggers memories of other times when it was playing. That understanding of how a tune can get stuck in your head, not only as a temporary ear-worm but also as an accompaniment to one's life story, stops the narrative from becoming fragmented, reinforcing the catharsis of each step Cheryl takes. Homeward bound, she wishes she was. Home, where her music's playing.

The result is a moving drama that shirks corny regret for an oddly positive exploration of isolation. In a sea of mostly male stories about human endurance - and a time when actual female characters are rare in Hollywood - Wild feels empowering; a film about a woman who finishes her story without a job, money or a bloke and still finds a happy ending, in her own way. Every small success along the road is a triumph. "Now I can eat hot mush instead of cold mush!" she yells, after getting her gas stove working, to no one but herself.

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Film review: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 01 January 2015 12:18

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough
Certificate: 15

"You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter! And you know what? You're right."

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