Posts with #film articles tag

Published on March 1 2016

Anime's three biggest selling points: Giant robots, pretty boys & philosophical determinism!

Anime's three biggest selling points: Giant robots, pretty boys & philosophical determinism!

As I type, the #1 name in American anime publishing, Funimation, are on the edge of reaching their primary $150,000 kickstarter goal to create a new HD dub for The Vision of Escaflowne. This being the 20th anniversary of the series, it’s hard to conceive of a more glorious and fitting celebration for a fantasy epic that, whilst rather unsuccessful in its initial Japanese broadcast, joined with the Young Adult novels and JRPGs of its day to become a defining Western window into the limitless imagination of its medium. Now considered a masterpiece two decades later, Kazuki Akane and Shōji Kawamori’s tale of divination and robotic warfare was the closest thing to a Game of Thrones or Broken Empire series in my childhood (even in its censored form), and whilst I’m thrilled to finally see the uncut show in English, my excitement travels beyond the usual anime staples of giant robots, bishonen boys and cat girls. It is, above all, a story that dealt with philosophical ideas like determinism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, and melded them all into the most unlikely of places: Romance.

Please note, there will be minor to major spoilers from this point on.

The Vision of Escaflowne follows an amateur high-school track runner and tarot card reader named Hitomi, who finds herself whisked away to a mystical world named Gaea where the Earth and Moon hang in the sky (our planet itself is called ‘The Mystic Moon’ – Pluto must be ecstatic). On the subject of whisking, she also initially meets Van Fanel, the young prince of Fanelia, and later the dashing knight Allen Schezar of Asturia, with all three becoming trapped in a love triangle as their once peaceful kingdoms fall under siege by the unstoppable Zaibach empire. Standard fantasy fare to begin with sure, but Escaflowne quickly takes several turns for the complex as it begins adding concepts like The Lost City of Atlantis, dragon-born energy crises, fantastical racism and human experimentation to the proceedings.

The heart and soul of the series is the notion of fate, where events are predetermined and decreed, and attempts to merge it with determinism, where such events are merely the result of causal chains. In the real world the coexistence of these concepts seems paradoxical, but in Escaflowne their intersection turns out to be the goal of our primary antagonist: Emperor Dornkirk. A not so subtle reference to Isaac Newton, this villain believes that both fate and destiny are governed by a single universal force, and his master plan to is to utilize his ‘Destiny Prognostication Engine’ (or ‘Fate Alteration Machine’) to not only foresee the course of history, but physically change it.

Dornkirk is both the ideal enemy and fellow spirit of Hitomi, whose card reading and pendulum divination turn out to be invaluable assets for her Gaea allies – precisely because she too is capable of altering future events. But whereas the Emperor treats free will like a scientific discovery i.e. something to be found and manipulated with, Hitomi’s eventual character development relies on her accepting fate as natural, and as a “choice” destiny. Her initial entry into the series is that of a immature young girl obsessed with seeing into the future and steering it from danger, regardless of whether she’s predicting whether a boy will like her, or whether a kingdom will see another tomorrow.

After numerous instances in which her fortune telling actually influences events for the worse, fanning the flames of conflict and putting her new friends in further harm’s way, her final revelation as our protagonist is resigning to a concept many philosophers have dealt with over the years – ‘Amor fati’, or “love of fate”. In Nietzsche’s mind, for example, ‘Amor fati’ holds that greatness in human character comes when we accept an un-changing reality, and admiring the beauty that exists simply in the inevitability of loss and suffering.

Admittedly, suffering does take a more subjective meaning when you're a bishie prince with angel wings and a giant robotic dragon. And you thought Disney princesses were entitled...

Admittedly, suffering does take a more subjective meaning when you're a bishie prince with angel wings and a giant robotic dragon. And you thought Disney princesses were entitled...

Escaflowne is so unique exactly because it takes these musings on free will and causality and centers them on romantic attraction. In the first episode, Hitomi posits that if she can beat a running track record, her high school crush will grant her a first kiss. It’s a charming metaphor for putting fate in one’s hands, and an even better precursor for the series latter events. Predestination is explored as a means of linking characters together in various methods, some subtle and others less so. The titular mecha of the series for example, Escaflowne, becomes fused with Van and binds the two’s lives together, and whilst Hitomi’s relationship with Van is of course developed naturally, it’s also finally revealed to be itself destined (indeed, it’s Hitomi’s acceptance of that bond that finally destroys the Fate Alteration Machine).

A pivotal moment is when Dornkirk himself has a go at playing matchmaker. In order to stop the ethereal bond between Von and Hitomi from ruining his ultimate plan – explained momentarily – he alters fate so that Hitomi and Allen seemingly become an item, right in front of poor Van. In order to bring about this classic romance novel misunderstanding, Dornkirk has to stage a similar scene between his subordinate Folken (Van’s brother) and one of Folken’s…leopard servant girls (anime will be anime). The jealousy that erupts from both parties shows off true love not necessarily as the flawed notion that Tim Minchin would mock, but as a multi-faceted manifestation of fate. In the case of the leopard girls, it is a custom of their race to become heavily loyal and duty-bound to their carer, whilst in Van and Hitomi’s case, it’s literally the universe being pulled asunder.

There's the friendzone, and then there's being forcibly DESTINED to be in the friendzone...

There's the friendzone, and then there's being forcibly DESTINED to be in the friendzone...

This mixing of love and laying down new future events might come across a bit cold when written here, but unlike a Christopher Nolan script, it’s kept firmly rooted in the human condition thanks to the quality writing on the characters. Hitomi is, after all, a high school girl, and despite pining for Allen during the bulk of the series, she comes to learn the folly of such fickle infatuation through her fortune telling. When she does a tarot reading for Millerna, Allen’s bride to be, the cards read that the marriage will be unbearable and that Hitomi herself will end up as Allen’s secret lover. Her attempt to lie about the reading and thus change fate (through the usage of a ‘luck’ tarot card) ends up empowering Zaibach’s latest ‘luck’ infused soldiers, thus making her a folly of her own emotional naivety.

This same desire to make the desirable possible is also what ultimately dooms Dornkirk. His eventual plan is to use his science to bring about the "zone of absolute fortune", or in other words to create a utopia. This falsely applied epicureanist philosophy – the wanting of total tranquility – is what supposedly doomed the lost land of Atlantis, and which turns out exactly to be where the emperor draws his power. His final acceptance of a “choice destiny” and the salvation of Gaea demonstrate his character as a tragic case of one man chasing for a perfect future, whilst blinding themselves to the lessons of the past.

If fine story & philosophical depth aren't for you - there's still the giant mech dragon.

If fine story & philosophical depth aren't for you - there's still the giant mech dragon.

Underappreciated in the fantasy realm at large and becoming more of a cult hit with each generation, the decision to bring The Vision of Escaflowne back in a definitive Blu-Ray release grants an excellent chance to re-examine these notions of devotion, and linking one’s destiny to finding a fellow spirit. All of that says nothing of the stellar animation, quality action scenes and industry-class art design.

By the time you finish reading this, chances are Funimation’s Kickstarter will be funded, but there’s still plenty of stretch goals that any diehard fan would want to reach, so I highly encourage you to contribute if you can, with what you can.

Whether they’re for feedback or discussion, comments are always appreciated!

Find out when The Urban Shepherd goes on his next diatribe by following him on Twitter!

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

Published on #Film Articles

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Published on February 9 2016

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

In less than a decade, Marvel went from licensing out their characters to one of the most formidable Hollywood movie studios.

Could the upcoming Warcraft movie send Blizzard in the same direction?

Preceding my re-watch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the write-up of which received a very positive response – my sincerest thanks!) was a slog of trailers that would have crumpled my geeky mind to dust ten years ago. Back-to-back previews for Captain America: Civil War, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse is cream dream satisfaction for most early-internet comic book fans, even if the multitude of 2016 releases is a clear sign that the curve of this caped crusader craze is about to curtail. The most underappreciated bit of media hype surrounded the Warcraft movie, due out this June as a combined production effort from Legendary Pictures and Blizzard Entertainment, the developer of the original video game franchise.

The heavily cheesy and somewhat substance-lacking footage didn’t do much to ‘wow’ the audience. Nor did the interview-heavy promo video for the flick that followed immediately after. There were two images that did leave a profound impact on me though: seeing director Duncan Jones talking on camera so cheerfully (in light of the recent passing of his father, David Bowie), and gazing at the Blizzard logo, so bold and blue on the big screen. At the moment, any opinion space that can be spared for Warcraft is spent debating whether this highest of fantasy films can disenchant the spell that stops video game movies from actually being enjoyable. Personally, I think there’s a pretty convincing case to be made that one great success for Blizzard in the cinema could signal the start of a whole new paradigm for Hollywood.

If any intellectual property could captivate an audience of moviegoers for a protracted, obsessive and unhealthily long period of time, it would be Warcraft. Every soulless movie studio has tried to rewrite the strategy guide for amassing the asses perched in cinema seats, but in terms of shaping video game movies to better resemble their thumb-twiddling counterparts, none can truly claim success. The continued struggle of traditional film companies to mine the potential box office gold of these films suggests that actual game developers should just give it a go themselves. Especially when the company in question has the ultimate crafting resource at its disposal: millions of subscription hours spent daily on re-jigging raid plans and endlessly grinding for gear.

The potential success Blizzard might have as a debut film producer lies beyond the fact that their premier product, World of Warcraft, is unabashedly the highest grossing game of all time. It's hard to deny that any title from the California developer thus far been less than ‘pretty good’, but more astounding is just how forward-thinking they’ve been with each new endeavour. Take for instance Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. More than a simple online card-game spinoff, the game’s monthly $20million revenue is partly owed to the way Blizzard fostered its popularity in the larger gaming community, with mad methods such as:

  • Making waves with a recent card culling announcement, suggesting they’ve even found a winning business solution to keep the game going, as promised, for the next two decades.

Point is, despite how unassuming they may seem in public, Blizzard are capable of bouncing back from every setback with publicity and financial success twicefold to their losses. Examples? Reclaiming the MOBA market with Heroes of the Storm. Challenging the First Person Shooter juggernaut with the upcoming Overwatch. Continuing to pioneer Always-on DRM regardless of how controversial the practice proved with Diablo III. It's all well and good that a video game maker makes good video games, but how well will they make the same clever turns when it comes to film?

Part of the problem with video games as a lucrative intellectual property is their relatively young age. It just doesn’t give them that instant ring in the public ear that many named superheroes command. Sure, you can find plenty of Marvel films that were inspired by best-selling comic books arcs, but whether it’s the price of an individual ticket or a multi-million dollar rights contract, people are paying for the comic book character name first and foremost. Warcraft, conversely, may have a fairly famous title, but the majority of punters won’t be pining to see cinematic incarnations of Azeroth, Durotan or the Murlocs (I will be, and if you knew what a murloc was you would too…).

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

Video game movies to date, apart from failing to impress critically, have hardly made a monetary case for their own lucrative future. The most financially successful is the mindless Resident Evil adaptations. These were profitable, but haven’t convinced their hapless creator Capcom to pursue similar strategies to follow-on their adaptations of Street Fighter or Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney. These catastrophes of commercial cinema come down to several factors:

  • An astonishing absence of truly accomplished directors.
  • Few recognisable elements that actually helped sell the cartridge and CD copies in the first place.
  • Most oddly, very few films being made out of the video games best known to millennials and mature audiences.

The latter has the hilarious exception of the Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993; a box office bob-omb that forever scared Nintendo away from leaving the house and licensing out another of their franchises.

This brings us to the topic of logos that started this discussion. Rather than begin proudly with the round Nintendo icon, the Super Mario Bros. film rather lamely opens its curtains to reveal its production company Light Motive - while the familiar Mario theme tune plays awkwardly in the background. These few seconds probably bear the closest resemblance to the original platformer, and yet they symbolically represent the original creator’s lack of involvement and care in the movie version. By lending their shiny and spiky lettering to the Warcraft movie, Blizzard already took the first step of taking responsibility for whatever ends up on screen. Given their purported faith in Duncan Jones directorial vision, this could lead to the first Tim Burton equivalent of a video game adaptation. Furthermore, with purported plans to give away all the World of Warcraft expansions to cinemagoers, we start to see a bigger picture of how Blizzard could pull off a Marvel-scale takeover of the box-office.

How ‘Warcraft’ and the Blizzard logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema

Blizzard’s brand name and cross-promotional strategy gives them an edge. Aside from having a shared universe series of games in Warcraft ala Marvel, each of their titles bear similar core aesthetics. When a new instalment looms on the horizon, gamers are often treated to exclusive content for other Blizzard hallmarks. Overwatch even stuck a Hearthstone cameo into its Disney-rivaling cinematic trailer. Let us not forget also that the Emmy award winning South Park episode lampooning World of Warcraft succeeded precisely because Blizzard were on hand to unlock the potential enjoyment of the spoof, rather than just blindly hand over the keys. The involvement Blizzard have in their imminent Warcraft movie-starter pack has been kept quite hushed, but given the textbook examples of how to achieve cross-platform success, it’s clear that there’s more planned here than just another fantasy flop.

Speaking of, with Nintendo having shot down every emerging rumour that they’re developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series for Netflix, the only rivals to Blizzard on the movie-game front are, oddly enough, themselves…sort of. Aside from Sony’s attempt to resurrect the dying zombie genre with a Last of Us adaptation, the biggest news in movie-game tie-ins was announced last November by Activision | Blizzard (the parent publishing company of Blizzard Entertainment) to create a series of ‘cinematic universes’ based on their best-selling titles under the banner of ‘Activision Blizzard Studios’. The production frontrunner is unsurprisingly Call of Duty. I would feel very foolish to doubt division head Nick van Dyk (who was chiefly involved in acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm during his tenure at Disney), but with the lack of core branding, characters to establish or names beloved to hardcore and casual gamers alike, this aggro approach to building a movie-game empire, instead of their subsidiary’s calculated, control method, seems spearheaded for a very fast game over.

Next Time: A lifetime of character building: Exploring the canon of David Bowie

Whether they’re for feedback or discussion, comments are always appreciated!

Find out when The Urban Shepherd goes on his next diatribe by following him on Twitter!

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

Published on #Film Articles

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Published on February 2 2016

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

Like most fanfare revolving around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this piece begins not just with a spoiler warning, but with an actual spoiler. From particular shots to well executed twists, it’s a miracle that so much from Disney’s latest pay-off actually remains in the brain. For myself however, picking a favourite moment offered little contest:

As Finn, Rae and BB-8 are dashing for dear life from the First Order’s assault on Jakku, our conscientiously objecting stormtrooper points out of frame to a ship with which the trio might make their escape. Rae responds by dismissing the unseen intergalactic spacecraft as “garbage”, but when the snazzier ride in front of them is roundly disintegrated, she changes her tune and they dash towards the ship, now brought into the shot and revealed to be the Millennium Falcon.

I will always remember the audience reaction to that 10 second sequence; a back-to-back chuckle and mini-applause, followed by a heightened interest that lasted for the rest of the running time. To me, it’s a brief reveal that helps fulfill the promise of the sequel trilogy, however flawed the rest of this opening act may be. We obviously wanted to know what became of the most famous kessel runner of the galaxy, but to touch that nerve of nostalgia so expertly (in the middle of an action-chase sequence no less), using little else than some carefully crafted dialogue and bit of camera panning is an achievement I feel has been heavily glossed over amongst all the hearsay, hereditary guesstimations and ‘it’s A New Hope rip-off!’ grumblings.

I should point out at this point that despite being heavily lapsed as far as geeks go, I still consider a second viewing of Star Wars episode VII to be a pretty requisite outing. Now that all my hopes and fears for this installment had been dealt with in appropriate fashion, the difficulty for round two lay in deciding beforehand just where or what my eyes and ears should focus on once the familiar opening scroll faded away. I’d absorbed nothing but speculation and factory-line fan theories before reuniting with Han Solo and co., and since then I’ve seen the film’s story go through every kind of take-down and equally passionate defense imaginable. In the end, my undivided attention landed on an aspect that I think almost everyone has brushed asunder: the filmmaking itself.

Despite racking up a massive slew of records and memes at the jump of lightspeed, it’s nothing short of peculiar just how little the reviews and fan dissections have appraised the cinematic bells and whistles on display. Whilst I’m sure it’s something best left for the DVD and on-demand release, sitting through the film twice offered plenty enough to explore in the way of cinematography, editing and (remember, its J.J Abrahams at the helm here) lighting techniques. Without the freedom to screen-capture and explore all the individual shots just yet, I’d like to focus on an area of filmmaking that, in my opinion, has always sat as the perfect segway between script and screen: narrative exposition, and why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, warts and all, actually pulls it off quite beautifully.

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

When it comes to dishing out important plot details with an approach that feels natural and not so (sorry to say it…) ‘forced’, this movie has its work monumentally cut out for itself. Not only does it need to plug up the time gap typical of just about every sequel, but it has no less than thirty years of lost history to account for. Worse still, it wants to ensure we learn as many facts about the new faces as those we discover about our old heroes, to bait us to return for two more thirds of a trilogy, and to provide a ‘Star Warsy’ feeling whose definition no two fans can agree on.

Isn’t it interesting then, that neither of our two lead characters are given any dialogue in their opening ten minutes? Seamlessness is the name of the game when it comes to exposition, and without a single spoken word, the audience gets everything they need to know about Finn and Rae through purely visual storytelling cues. Better yet, their introductions run quite counter to one another; Finn is established as the killer-who-couldn’t through body language, inaction and an abundance of close-up shots (quite outside the image of a Star Wars stormtrooper - the fictional go-to of militarized anonymity), whilst Rae’s role as the interplanetary dreamer is done differently to that of Luke Skywalker in episode 4; with breathtaking establishing shots and a-day-in-the-life-on-Jakku sequence that, again, bait audience expectation using old Star Wars iconography (Star Destroyers, an AT-AT walker etc.). It’s an admittedly cheesy method of rebuilding your fantasy world sure, but one that was sorely missing last time around.

Famed author Jo Walton coined a term that stands as the cornerstone of good narrative exposition: Incluing. Defined as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information", I think the examples I’ve listed so far are textbook standard as far as film is concerned. If you were also looking for a one word answer for what was wrong with the prequel trilogy, incluing is as simultaneously effective and blunt as any lightsaber. Whether you felt more uncomfortable in a Jedi council hall or a galactic republican coffee room, so rarely was any information imparted to the audience through purely cinematic means, perhaps explaining why the CGI rendered ‘single-take’ that opened up Revenge of the Sith probably got more praise than it deserved.

Of course Star Wars as a series has the unique advantage over other blockbusters in that it can actually spell-out plot points from the get go using its opening crawl, yet have it be one of the most thrilling portions of the flick (trade negotiations notwithstanding). Personally, I think this is where our new movie actually outshines the original. Not envisioned as a trilogy, its strange how A New Hope kicks off with the sentence, “It is a period of civil war”, and ends basically in the thick of conflict (though I am aware that George Lucas had other ideas for how it was supposed to read). Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams actually sets up the perfect bookend for film one: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” And then he is found. Storytelling at its finest!

On the subject, I’ve heard every fan and their mother (and I do mean that earnestly) complain that The Force Awakens tells a story they already heard a long time ago in the exact same, far, far away galaxy. I’ll put my biases on the table and say the throw-backs bothered me far less than others. Whilst a pastiche of old Star Wars tropes was something I only half expected, I rather like the idea of the ‘retro-movie’ that George Lucas himself ironically and deridingly threw out in his Charlie Rose interview.

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' brings the magic of good Exposition back into film

In practice though, many of the more obvious reused story beats are not given the same expository grace as the new elements. Sure, the film tries not to waste any time in plainly telling us that Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son, but the reveal of Starkiller Base and subsequent destruction of the Republic, shoehorning Maz Kanata’s cantina into the lull point and setting up a tensionless final X-wing assault wouldn’t feel so tasteless if they were given the same storytelling care as the all important first act of the film, which was happy to let the camera and setting guide the viewer, rather than leave it up to clunky dialogue that pretty much defines the inferior second half.

The most in depth critique of Star Wars: The Force Awakens directorial approach I’ve read is the repeated crowning of J.J. Abrams as the ‘ultimate fan-film director’. Well, to me that implies at least that he is somewhat exceptional at making movies, and an exceptionally made movie is what we got. It leaves me both arrested and cautious for Episode VIII, to be directed by Rian Johnson. Though his complicated 2012 sci-fi hit Looper relied on a narration-led approach that would never fly with Star Wars, it did present symbolic character dynamics and pulpy futuristic-action that could take this premier Hollywood franchise to even bolder frontiers.

Next time: How the 'Blizzard' logo could define the next era of Blockbuster cinema.

Find out when The Urban Shepherd goes on his next diatribe by following him on Twitter!

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

Published on #Film Articles

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Published on October 18 2012

Though it's encompassed a little less of my time and energy than music, I've also dabbled in the medium's celluloid cousin, focusing mainly on reviews of foreign and independent DVD releases, but occasional film screenings, festivals and even conducting the occasional interview. Also unlike my Music publication history these have been isolated to one fantastic website, Rhythmcircus, but never the less I think it's a hefty list.

 

These are arranged alphabetically and categorized by article type, and accompanied by the date of publication.

 

Film/TV Reviews

 

 Alien Vs Ninja - 11/02/2011

Atrocious - 29/09/2011

Dangermouse The Complete Collection, 30th Anniversary Edition - 29/09/11

Holy Flying Circus - 15/02/2012

Lou - 03/09/2011

Lovely, Still - 23/05/2011

Mammuth - 03/09/2011

Mistuko Delivers - 21/06/2012

Ninja Battle - 12/02/2012

Ninja Girl - 07/10/2012

Passenger Side - 28/05/2012

Pieces - 19/09/2011

The Belly of An Architect - 02/07/2012

The BFI Future FIlm Festival - 07/03/2012

The Exterminator - 23/11/2011

The Hunter - 01/03/2011

The Living Wake - 05/04/2011

The Lost Bladesman - 05/08/2011

The Room London Screening With Q&A - 23/02/2012

The Woman - 18/10/2011

United - 09/08/2011

 

Interviews

 

Mark Kermode - 31/06/2012

Tom Kingsley & Will Sharpe (Directors of Black Pond) - 07/03/2012

 

Anime Reviews


Bleach Series 8 Part 2 - 24/05/2012

Bleach Series 9 Part 1 - 25/06/2012

Bleach Series 9 Part 2 - 18/08/2012

Blue Exorcist Part 1 - 18/08/2012

Clannad Season 1 Part 2 - 18/08/2012

Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos - 24/09/2012

Fullmetal Alchemist: Conquerer of Shamballa - 24/09/2012

Ghost In The Shell: Solid State Society - 31/05/2012

Hetalia Axis Powers: Paint it White! - 18/06/2012

Hetalia World Series Season 3 Collection - 18/08/2012

Princess Jellyfish - 24/09/2012

Puella Magi Madoku Magica - 14/10/2012

Shiki - 14/10/2012

Spice and Wolf Season 1 - 18/06/2012

Spice and Wolf Season 2 - 18/02/2012

Welcome to the Space Show - 23/07/2012

Yu-Gi-Oh! Bonds Beyond Time 3D London Screening - 15/05/2011

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Written by The Urban Shepherd

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