The Morning Read (1.06.09)

Wow.  Between the work crews showing up at my house every morning at 8:00 right now to work on rebuilding the master bathroom and this rotten chest cold and the codeine-based cough syrup I took to keep from cracking a rib last night, I'm getting a very late start on things today, and I'm sorry about that.  And I've got to get out of here for my first screening of 2009, David Goyer's "The Unborn."

Even so, there's always time for The Morning Read.  Let's see what's going on out there today.

I always knew Harry was a cartoon character.

Quint, still working on his AMAD column, followed the Neil Simon/Richard Dreyfuss connection over to "Lost In Yonkers."  Only three more after today.  Such a shame.

Over at Variety, there's some actual content today.  I know it might not be a huge deal to non-Latin audiences, but a Cantinflas biopic actually sounds pretty good to me.  This guy was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but because of his accent, he remains unknown to a huge percentage of the movie-going public.

I'm not shocked to learn that Pegg and Frost are co-starring in "TinTin."  I'm just shocked it took this long to be officially confirmed.

Cinematical has the first still from Apatow's "Funny People" now.

Devin at CHUD published a good piece about how the failure of "Speed Racer" and the success of "The Dark Knight" may have combined to kill "Shazam" as it moved through the development process at Warner Bros.  It's all basically one long link to John August's blog, but that li'l extra bit of Devin makes his article worth a look.

Probably the coolest thing I've stumbled onto all day was at /Film, where a reader submitted a link to a LiveJournal entry that is basically a walk through all of the empty standing sets from "The Wire," left in place even after the show wrapped.  It's beautiful stuff, one of those happy accidents, and I highly recommend it for any fan of the show.

Over at Trailers From Hell, Jesus Travino takes on "The Magnificent Seven," and it's a good one.

Are you familiar with Kevin B. Lee?  He's been working ona  major critical project for a while now that is like Quint's AMAD column, but on a larger scale, and with a very particular focus.  He's been working his way through all 1000 films on this list, an admirable goal, to be certain.  He's reviewing them all as he goes, too, and he's within spitting distance of the end of the project now.  #946?  "Before The Revolution" by Bertolluci.

And lastly, if you really want to be depressed about just how far an icon can fall, check out Bloody-Disgusting, where they ran a promo trailer for Romero's latest "Dead" movie.

Wow.  Ouch.

'Kung Fu Panda'
'Kung Fu Panda'
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

My DVD Shelf: Kung-Fu Panda (BluRay)

I've got only one complaint about the BluRay release of this title.

Sound and picture are top-notch, of course.  Dreamworks was an early example of how well a studio could treat their films on DVD, and they always deliver razor-sharp crystal-clear transfers, and with BluRay, that's gotten very impressive indeed.  Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne went out their way to give the film a beautiful watercolor-meets-Shaw Bros. palette, and it makes for a remarkable vibrant home video presentation.  And you can't complain about the extra features, even if most of them are geared more towards a young viewer.  There's a solid, informative commentary track, and an even better BluRay-only feature called "Animator's Corner," a running visual track that combines picture-in-picture commentary, storyboard and animatic comparisons, and even video of the voice actors giving performances in the recording booth.  Great stuff.

But why produce a direct-to-video sequel called "Secrets of the Furious Five," release it to DVD on the same day you release the film, but then not put it on the BluRay release?  It's too short to release on its own later, and if you double-dip just for that, that's insulting.  It seems like one strange missed opportunity.  Toshi and I have watched "Secrets of the Furious Five" on standard DVD, and it's a nice little addition to the main feature.

And if you are an animation fan at all, and you avoided "Kung-Fu Panda" for some reason, remedy that immediately.  It's heaps of fun, and amazingly, it's one of the best "real" kung-fu films I've seen produced in America.  It gets everything right.  Even Jack Black manages to make his persona seem fresh again and downright innocent as Po, the main character.  Not every actor's given enough to do (David Cross and Seth Rogen barely register), but the film also never slows down to catch its breath.  Master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, is the film's best character, and everything he and Black do together is pretty wonderful.  Overall, this wasn't the year's best animated film, but it may represent the very best of what Dreamworks has pulled off so far.

'Top Gun,' produced under Ned Tanen's watch at Paramount
'Top Gun,' produced under Ned Tanen's watch at Paramount
Credit: Paramount

Remembering Ned Tanen

Films made under his watch include 'Jaws,' 'Animal House,' 'Top Gun' and E.T.'

I think there is the incorrect perception sometimes that people who write about movies professionally automatically have to dislike studio heads or hate executives.  That somehow there is an inherent antagonism.

But that's crazy.  Because someone greenlights the movies I love.  Yes, there are times when I am confounded by decisions made by a studio, but every single time something great comes out, I am amazed all over again that the system works at all.  And I am encouraged by the way some people approach the balance between commerce and art, between entertainment for the masses and something that aims higher.  Anyone who can do that well for any amount of time at all deserves respect.

And Ned Tanen was one of the guys who did it really well when he did it.  The legacy of films that were made under his watch is impressive.  "American Grafitti."  "National Lampoon's Animal House."  "Coal Miner's Daughter."  "Blues Brothers."  "The Deer Hunter."  "Jaws."  "On Golden Pond."

"E." Freaking. "T."

Tanen was an agent first, and then ended up running some record labels that were owned by his agency.  He was already in his forties when he moved over to the film division.  Quickly, he gained a reputation for putting hits together, and went from being a hot-shit junior exec to the guy running the whole show.  From 1976 to 1982, Universal was the Ned Tanen show.  Jumping ship after delivering a hit like "E.T." was certainly going out in style.  He gave a whole generation of hip a foothold in mainstream Hollywood and made a ton of money doing it.  I wish more people had instincts like his, and the nerve he had in terms of supporting some really bold filmmakers when they were still unproven.

And if you're an '80s kid, you have Tanen to thank for making at least some of that happen.  When he left as head of the studio, he took a couple of projects with him, and "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" were both films he made happen. 

Maybe focusing on a few films instead of a full slate recharged his batteries, because he ended up taking the top job at Paramount for a while.  "Top Gun" was one of his big monster studio hits.  "Ghost" was another. 

And then, as a producer at Sony, he made a few forgettable pictures during the '90s.  Not a terrible ending to an impressive career.  But no matter what his last onscreen credit was (and he didn't have many... executives in that era didn't), he made a huge mark on the exact years of cinema that sort of turned me into the film viewer I am today.

I'm throwing something on in honor of him tonight, but I'm not sure what yet.

Geek trivia bonus:  Yes.  Biff Tannen in the "Back To The Future" films is named after him.  How cool is that?

He was 77 years old.  They don't make them like Ned Tanen anymore, and I'm not sure they ever made more than a few.   And as much as my sympathy goes out to his family and all his many friends in town tonight, I am more interested in offering up a virtual toast to him for being a champion to so many films I love so much.

'Wall-E'
'Wall-E'
Credit: Disney/Pixar

My DVD Shelf: WALL-E (BluRay)

I've written as much about this film in 2008 as probably any other title, and maybe more.  It's time to finish digesting it once and for all, and what better way than with this beautiful BluRay version of the film?  First, you've got absolutely cutting edge sound and picture, about as nice as anything I own.  You've got the short film "Presto," one of the funniest cartoons Pixar has every produced, as well as a great behind-the-scenes piece on the film's soundscape, one of the most sophisticated of the year.  There's an entire feature film included with the bonus material, "The Pixar Story" by Leslie Iwerks, and it's a lovely tribute to just how far this company has come.

And the BluRay-only extras are pretty great as well.  There's a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern-esque short called "BURN-E" about a character you can only glimpse in the movie.  The short illustrates how, from his perspective, WALL-E is hardly the loveable scamp he appears to be in the film.  You can watch the short with a commentary by director Angus MacLane, or with a storyboard-to-screen comparison running, and the picture-in-picture commentary for the feature film is even better.  Andrew Stanton walks you through everything.  You can even take a 3D tour of the film's digital sets, and there's a second pop-up commentary track in case you need to know even more about the production of the film.

Overall, a fitting package for a new Disney/Pixar classic.

Clint Eastwood protects his lawn in 'Gran Torino'
Clint Eastwood protects his lawn in 'Gran Torino'
Credit: Warner Bros.

One Thing I Love Today: My Favorite Moment of 2008

Not long after I ran that "Where The Wild Things Are" interview on Ain't It Cool, I got an invite from the same publicist who set that up to attnd a reception and screening for "Gran Torino."

This was going to be one of the very first of the early buzz screenings for the film, so Eastwood was set to be at the reception, pressing the flesh.  Face time with a living legend.  Sometimes you go to one of these events not for the column fodder, but for the pure experience of it.  I met Eastwood many years ago when I was new to Los Angeles, when I was a theater manager hosting a special advance screening of "The Rookie."  I was wildly intimidated by him at that point.  I looked forward to talking to him this time as a filmmaker and not just as an icon.  And when I double-checked to make sure I had an invite for a guest, I had an idea.

I called my dad.

"Hey, dad.  What are you doing on Monday, December 1st, at around 7:00?"

"Ummm... I don't think anything.  Why?"

"Wanna come to LA and be my guest at a small reception for Clint Eastwood so you can meet him?"

"... really?"

Now, you have to understand... I grew up in a house where Eastwood sat at the very top of a list of icons of cool that my father held dear.  I was raised on whatever Eastwood made.  That's what my dad would take me to the theater to see, ratings be damned.  Clint was enough of a stamp of approval for him, and the hell with the MPAA.  All of his movies were Rated Clint.

So when my dad realized I was serious, he gave the phone to my mother, went and checked on air fare, and then came back.

"You know what?  I think I'm interested."

So he came in a few days early, by himself.

I think my mom wanted to give him room to have his weekend out here by himself, and it was cool to have him alone for a while.  Time with either of my parents is increasingly rare these days, and I'm hoping I can find an equally cool experience to invite my mother out here for, so she can have the same kind of hang time with us and the kids.  My boys really seemed to enjoy having their grampa here, and it sort of blows my mind to see my father playing with my kids.  I think I've always had a decent-to-good relationship with my parents, but until I had my first child, I didn't really understand my parents.  Now, it's like my perception of them as people I'm glad to know and not just as the people who raised me has sort of snapped into focus.

And one of the things I really respect about my dad's taste in movies, books, music, or TV is that it's really his.  It's genuine.  He wouldn't know if something is cool, but he really seems to savor the things he likes.  Certain authors and certain genres, tons of spy and detective fiction.  I'm sure Donald Westlake's death made an impact on him last week.  My dad's a pretty constant reader.  Like my mom, he leaves finished paperback books everywhere he visits, like a trail of bread crumbs.  When he raised me on Clint Eastwood's films, he couldn't tell me why he was drawn to them.  He never explained John Wayne or Steve McQueen or Bruce Lee to me.  How do you explain Lee Marvin or James Bond or Charles Bronson?  How do you explain Clint Eastwood?

When he arrived in LA, he told me he'd been watching some of his favorite Eastwood films on DVD before he left.  "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is a film I know he returns to often, and I don't blame him.  It's still one of the very best things Eastwood's made.  And the last time my dad was in LA, I showed him "Dirty Harry" on BluRay, and he loved it.  He loved the presentation of it, and he wanted to watch some more BluRay while he was here.  This time, I showed him "Wanted" on BluRay (he liked it but wasn't doing cartwheels, but thought it looked and sounded great), and he went to a press screening of "The Reader" with me as well (he was surprised by how much he responded to the film).  All of that, though, was just warm up for the night of the 1st.

We drove over to Beverly Hills, leaving early enough to make sure the traffic on the 405 wasn't going to stress him out.  The Clarity Screening Room is one of my favorites in LA for sound and image.  Right now, RealD, the 3D company, is located in the same building so they do all their showcase 3D screenings in this theater.  And I've been to dozens of receptions in that lobby as well.  I met Buzz Aldrin in that lobby last year, for example.  They had a nice spread set up when we got there, and my dad and I had something to eat, had a few drinks, chatted with a number of familiar faces and other online film writers, including Greg Ellwood, one of the founders of HitFix, and the guy who first approached me about writing here.  It was good to be able to introduce my father to him so he has some notion of who I'm working with.

For a little while, it looked like Clint was a no-show.  We were told the reception would be from 7:30 to 8:30, and the film would be starting immediately afterwards.  As it got closer and closer to start time, I could tell my dad was disappointed.  I've been to events where something didn't come off as planned, so I'm not prone to getting upset at something like this, but my dad flew in for this one.  Even though we didn't talk about his expectations, I could tell he'd imagined what it might be like.

But then one of the guys we were standing with gestured at the far side of the lobby.  "He's here."

It was about ten after eight, and sure enough, Eastwood was finally in the house, already surrounded by people looking for their hello, their question, their moment.

I steered my dad through the crowd, over to the edge of things, where one of the publicists saw me.  She led us through the crush as David Sheehan was wrapping up whatever point he was emphatically making.

"Clint?  This is Drew McWeeny from Ain't It Cool."

"Nice to meet you."  He shook my hand and I was struck my how slight he is.  Compact.  Rangy.  Lean.  He's not quite as tall as I am, something that's very odd to realize when I think of how much larger than life he always seems.  And since my dad stands a good two and a half inches taller than me, he sort of loomed over Eastwood a bit.

We chatted for a moment about how great the "Dirty Harry" BluRay box looked, and how much I hope they get through his whole library in high definition.  I asked about "Bronco Billy" in particular.  He told me no, that's not one of the ones that is currently set for release.

"Shame.  It's always been a favorite of mine.  I was raised on all your films, and my father always emphasized the holy trinity in our house of James Bond, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood."  This got a laugh out of him.  "That's why I wanted to bring him along tonight to meet you."

And having made the introduction, I stepped back to watch my dad shake hands with him.

My dad beamed as he said, "I've enjoyed a lot of hours of entertainment thanks to your work over the years, and I appreciate it."

"Thank you," Clint responded in that unmistakable snarling whisper of his.

"I have one question for you."

Eastwood smiled.  My dad's 68, so this isn't just some kid accosting him, but instead, a greyer-than-average full-blown fanboy moment from someone in his peer group, and Eastwood seemed pleased.  "Go ahead."

"I was just rewatching 'The Outlaw Josey Wales,' and you were just incredibly fast on the draw in that one.  Did you have special training for it, or was that an editing trick, or is that just how fast you were?"

And as Eastwood's smile got broader, he looked at me for a moment, enjoying himself now.  "Well, as it turns out, I was just rewatching that one myself.  Checking out a new strike print they're preparing for something."

He turned back to my dad.  "And you know what?  You're right.  I was fast."

We chatted for another few minutes, but as other people stepped forward, we faded back.  And besides... that one genuine exchange, that give and take... that was enough.  My dad and I headed into the theater and took our seats, and about ten minutes later, Eastwood walked in and introduced the film.

And as for the movie?  I liked it a lot.  It's much funnier than I expected.  Eastwood's choice to use non-professional actors for the main kids leads to some awkward occasional moments, but overall, I thought it was as interesting a riff on his snarling tough guy image as "Unforgiven" was on his Western persona.  It strikes me as broad entertainment more than Oscar bait, but his performance really is a special thing, a reminded of just why we've been watching his every move for 50 years now.

My thanks to Michelle Robertson for the invite on this one.  In a year as packed with movie moments as 2008 was, this is the one I'll always treasure.

 

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Doubt'
Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Doubt'
Credit: Miramax

On "Doubt"

John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own award-winning play is a provocative adult drama featuring strong performances from some of our very best working actors.  It may not have made it onto my top ten list for the year, but that's such a personal and subjective thing that it shouldn't be taken as a knock against the movie.  It's still absolutely worth your time.

Set in 1964 in Brooklyn, "Doubt" tells the story of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a new parrish priest determined to bring a new warmer identity  to the priesthood.  He speaks from the heart during his sermons, and he seems to be approachable, easy to talk to.  He's the exact opposite of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the Mother Superior who runs the school adjunct to the church.  She's feared by every single kid and most of the nuns as well, and she takes great pride in that.

When Father Flynn takes a special interest in Donald Miller, the first black student at the school, he catches the attention of Sister James (Amy Adams), one of the younger nuns.  She's not sure what to make of it, and she takes her suspicions to Sister Aloysius.  She really doesn't know what she saw or what she suspects, but right away, Sister Aloysius locks on.  She's immediately sure.  And once the machinery of justice is in motion, as far as she's concerned, Father Flynn doesn't stand a chance.

There are several ways this film could unfold, and I know what I thought the film was going to be is not at all what Shanley actually made.  His film is much sadder, about the loneliness of moral certainty.

You've probably read or heard about the work of the amazing Viola Davis, and it's true.  She comes in for one long sequence with Meryl Streep, and she's devastating.  She alters the film... pulls the gravity sideways... and she poses a moral question so complicated that it resonates through everything else that happens.  And what makes the scene so great is the way she is the only person who presents as immovable a moral force as Streep.  And it obviously shakes Streep deeply.  Their work together is the heart of the film.

Hoffman's performance is pinched, careful, with these occasional bursts of genuine humanity like sun through clouds on a rainy day.  Like he can't keep himself bottled up.  But he regrets every instance.  He's hiding in the priesthood, probably from himself as much as anyone else.  And no matter what he is, he's got it on a leash.  He's helping.  He's doing good in his community.  He genuinely believes that.  But he can't stand strong when faced with Sister Aloysius.  He can't play the game better than she can, and he knows it.  He doubts.  And doubting himself the way he does, it's like a cancer, eating at him.

It's a simple, austere film, and Shanley suggests period without hammering you over the head with it.  This is his childhood, the world where he first started shaping his own moral viewpoint.  Although this particular incident didn't really happen, these types of personality showdowns played out in his life, and he's writing from a lifetime of observation.

"Doubt" is not a fireworks show.  Those expecting some kind of giant battle of wills may be disappointed.  Instead, it's all about power being flexed back and forth, subtle shifts in the tide, and the currents of certainty and doubt that carry us all along.  It's been almost 20 years since Shanley directed his last film, "Joe Versus The Volcano," but I hope his next one comes much, much sooner.

The Morning Read (1.05.09)

So here we are.  New Year.  Guess, uh... guess we've got robot butlers and moon colonies now?  No?  Everything's exactly the same?

Well, then, back to it.

Thank God.  Harry is still on Facebook.

He also put up a list of his ten favorite BluRay releases in 2008. Based on the set-up he has, he may actually be in a position to judge.  One day, I shall have a Film Laboratory behind my house, where I go to watch the absolute best presentation possible of a film.  Until then, I seethe when I think how nice Harry's lair is.  I'm sure all ten of these discs rock the foundations.

Quint's had a good couple of days with AMAD, with "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Prisoner Of Second Avenue."  I'm sad he's folding the column soon, but I've heard rumor he's got good reason to wrap it up, and as long as he's busy, good for him.

I hope you read the saga of Jeff Wells and the emotionally vivid cowboy hat.  Because it was worth a read.

I can't believe Devin at CHUD is keeping up with his STAR TREK series.  If he pulls it off, it's a Nerd Monument, and I will buy him many beers.

Pete over at /Film posted a great video of the fight choreography on "Ninja Assassin".

David Poland published a lovely piece by Mark Wheaton (aka "Smilin' Jack Ruby aka The Sexiest Man On The Internet) about the real life figure who may be the most direct inspiration for the character of Daisy in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."  Pretty great stuff.

"There are numerous dancers who can lay claim to the title of 'Balanchine's muse'..."

Relativity buying Rogue is an interesting thing.  It makes them an unproven new buyer looking to establish an identity, and that could make them a very exciting place to work.

Other than that, Variety's a ghost town this morning.  Same at the Reporter.  It's like everyone's still holding their breath before Sundance.

Todd over at Twitchfilm.net has the first images from Chan Wook Park's "Thirst" that I've seen, his vampire movie.  Verrrrrry exciting to see him at work again, to realize that's actually coming finally.

Roger Ebert put up a good piece about the way the press loves to build up and tear down movie stars.

"This is another example of shabby journalism separating a victim from the pack and creating scandal so it can be covered. The Reuters story is not attributed, is not fair, is misleading, and doesn't belong in a newspaper, on TV or on the web. Those are some of the reasons it got wide play."

This next one's for the horror nerds only.

Did you see the sculpt for the new Michael Myers mask?

Xeni Jardin at Boing! Boing! finally caught up with "Waltz With Bashir," and she sort of flipped her shit for it a bit.  I agree with her about what a powerful experience the film is.  It's a very unusual approach to documentary that I think ends up being quite truthful.

Amid at Cartoon Brew has put together a phenomenal look at the year ahead in animation books, and it's worth a browse.

Will Smith in 'Hancock'
Will Smith in 'Hancock'
Credit: Sony Pictures

My DVD Shelf: Hancock (BluRay)

When this arrived at the house, I decided to try something to test my own reaction to the film. When I wrote my review for Ain't It Cool, it may have seemed largely negative, but part of that stems from frustration that it didn't all work. I had my buddy over on two successive nights, and on the first night, I showed him everything in "Hancock", up to the moment Will Smith and Charlize Theron kiss. Then I shut it off. And, man, he loved it. He thought it was Will Smith's best movie, he loved Peter Berg's work, loved the casting.

So the second night he comes over, I put on the second half of the film, from the kiss to the end. And this time, the result is radically different. He hates the movie. Can't believe what he's watching. Can't even believe it's the same film he saw the night before.

If you asked him on the first night, "Hancock" was a great movie. If you asked him on the second night, "Hancock" was a disaster. That pretty much sums it up. It is a deeply schizophrenic film. It's broken right down the middle. The idea of a PR man helping an alcoholic asshole clean up his image as a superhero? That's a film I enjoyed watching. Whatever the hell all that nonsense about Charlize Theron's character being another god just like Will Smith and the magically changing rules of how their powers work? No fun at all. I like Eddie Marsan a lot, and I thought he was great in "Happy-Go-Lucky" this year, but I don't get his storyline at all. It's too silly to be serious, too grim to be funny. It's a tonal mess.

The BluRay package is, for the most part, the same as the DVD, and there is some material in the unrated cut that does make a legitimate difference in the film, dealing with Hancock's sexual habits. The onset visual diary you can turn on as a picture-in-picture feature exclusive to the BluRay is very nice, and I hope more commentaries are handled like this in the future.

 

Hugh Jackman goes snikt! in Gavin Hood's "Wolverine"
Hugh Jackman goes snikt! in Gavin Hood's "Wolverine"
Credit: 20th Century Fox

What To Watch For In 2009: The Warning Signs

Motion Captured's Drew McWeeny is already feeling down on movies from 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' to the 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' squeakuel

Like I said in the second article in this series, I am a movie optimist.

I hope every film on this list turns out to be great.  But let's be honest, all of us have a radar that develops over time, a radar for terrible movies, and there are things that set off that radar for each of us.  Maybe the movies on this list sound great to you, but each of them makes me jumpy, and I'll explain why...

"2012"

I've seen the trailer with the giant wave wiping away the mountaintop Tibetan temple and... that's it?  That's the big image that's supposed to hook us in?  The same basic gag that ended the "Day After Tomorrow" trailer?  That film was wretched, "10,000 B.C." was wretched... what possible reason would I have to think that "2012" is going to be anything other than more of the same?

I also think it's ridiculous to make end of the world movies about this Mayan prophecy nonsense.  But I guess it was inevitable, and leave it to the Irwin Allen of our age to be the one to get his onscreen first.

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Cameron Diaz in Richard Kelly's 'The Box'
Cameron Diaz in Richard Kelly's 'The Box'
Credit: Warner Bros.

What To Watch For In 2009: The Question Marks

Motion Captured's Drew McWeeny isn't ready to commit to films including 'The Box,' 'The Road' and 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

 

I hope you had a chance to read and enjoy the first part of this series, where I picked the must see titles for 2009.

So why are these films listed here as question marks instead of under the must-see section?  Does that mean these are films I'm not going to see?  Of course not.  I'm sure I'll see every one of these.  I'm interested in them enough to write about them, after all.

They're here because these are films with real potential, but films that I have hesitations about, films I hope will work, but which all have some strike against them.  I am a film optimist, and in a perfect world, all of these films will rock just as much as I think they can.

But we all know that's not always the case.  So let's cross our fingers and wade in for this next batch.

 

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