Category Archives: Conspiracy

A Few Good Men (1992) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Drama
Duration: 138 mins
Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore

One of the most quoted movies in recent decades, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s legal drama pits Tom Cruise’s talented young JAG Corps officer against Jack Nicholson’s tyrannical Marine Corps division commander. Cruise excels as the plucky lawyer faced with the task of defending two marines on trial for murder. However, this one will always be remembered for his co-star’s scenery-chewing turn as the defendants’ base commander and the man behind their illicit orders to “train” the soon-to-be victim. A host of top names fill out the rest of the bill with both Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak (as Cruiser’s legal team) playing more grounded roles than was typical of their careers at that point. Kevin Bacon is his usual safe pair of hands as the prosecutor while a nasty Kiefer Sutherland and the late great J.T. Walsh offer strong support as Nicholson’s underlings. Sorkin’s sharp script is best remembered for its relentless courtroom dialogue but it’s laced with subtleties that augment the drama from all angles. From its nods to the various character’s backgrounds to the unspoken enmity between the Marines and the Navy, they provide a rich subtext to the plot. From the director’s chair, Reiner generates a palpable tension and swift pace from the screenplay with much help from composer Marc Shaiman’s exciting score and, of course, his two leads. Though “Colonel Nathan Jessup” has probably gone down as Nicholson’s most famous role and though he certainly provides the lion’s share of the movie’s dramatic thump, it’s not the most nuanced piece of acting we’ve seen from the screen legend. Playing up to a caricature of his own celebrity, he never attempts to escape his “Big Jack” persona and is content to let his famous sneering delivery and scathing smile do most of the work. Not that it hurts the movie in the slightest but it seems a relevant footnote when discussing one of modern cinema’s most memorable characters.

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Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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Jack Reacher (2012) 4.31/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.7
Genre: Thriller, Action
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall

When a sniper shoots six random people, a former crack investigator with the military police, Jack Reacher, begins chipping away at the District Attorney’s case and uncovers a wider conspiracy. Back in 2000, Christopher McQuarrie slipped into the director’s chair and comfortably exhaled the word “action” and, indeed, that’s exactly what his forte turned out to be. Action dripping with condensation rescued from overkill by a confident playfulness and pulsing with a similarly restrained tension. The perfect accompaniment for his trademark dialogue that, along with Tarantino’s, seemed to define the 90’s crime thriller.

His latest offering to this genre was the subject of much controversy during its development as word broke that Tom Cruise would take on the role of Lee Child’s much loved title character. The problem: Jack Reacher is 6’5″ tall in Child’s books and his physical presence is a defining feature of the fearsome detective. Cruise? Well, as one of Hollywood’s smallest A-listers, 6’5″ is more than a (err..) stretch. However, despite the hesitation on the fans’ part, the movie succeeds as one of this century’s better action thrillers. Sure, it lacks the intimidating presence of Child’s Reacher but Cruise is more than solid in a less distinct formulation of the character and to make up the difference, McQuarrie surrounds him with a highly capable and charismatic cast. Rosamund Pike is equally watchable as the attorney representing the police’s prime suspect, Robert Duvall pops up in an interesting extended cameo as an wily ex-marine sharpshooter, and Werner Herzog, of all people, turns in one of the more bizarre movie villains in recent years. Best of all, however, is Jai Courtney as his right-hand man with a killer charm.

While the set pieces are ably handled, not to mention defined by a refreshing degree of live action stunt work, in a nice twist on the modern blockbuster, it’s the plot that drives this movie as McQuarrie picks the best elements of the original story and juices it up with his edgy yet humorous dialogue. That goes for every character except Herzog’s who is given one lame line after another to struggle with. There’s no doubt that casting a more beast like actor in the lead role would’ve added the much absent menace to this movie’s narrative but, in the end, McQuarrie and Cruise deliver an eminently worthy action flick. Jack Reacher won’t leave you bowled over but you’ll more than likely find yourself substantially entertained.

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Pickup on South Street (1953) 4.11/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 80 mins
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

Samuel Fuller’s dark and classic noir has pickpocket Richard Windmark playing two sides against the middle when he unwittingly grifts a wallet containing a secret military microfilm that was being sold to the Russians. Fuller sets a nice tone to the movie early on while his tight screenplay gives Dwight Taylor’s story a brisk momentum. The slick but warm dialogue adds much depth to the story and softly resonates against Leigh Harline’s sultry score. Widmark is a fine lead and has all the gritty edge of a Bogart or a Ladd. However, the show stealer is undoubtedly Thelma Ritter’s streetwise Moe who gives the movie its most charming and emotional component. She owns the screen when she’s on it and in her final scene in the movie, she gives the audience a peerless piece of acting that will live long in memory. Pickup on South Street pulls no punches either and there are some rough scenes of violence that wouldn’t make it into many of today’s Hollywood movies. Ultimately, though it all adds wonderfully to the noir atmosphere.

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The Firm 1

The Firm (1993)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 154 mins
Director: Sydney Pollack
Stars: Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris

Star studded legal thriller with a still fresh faced Tom Cruise as the brash young attorney whose dream job at a Memphis law firm turns into a nightmare when he discovers they’re a front for the Mafia. Throw in a meddling FBI and a largely unseen Chicago mobster and the scene is set for some old school thrills and a nice spot of running for the always eager Cruiser. As usual for a John Grisham adaptation, an array of cracking characters lie at the base to this movie played by no one but the cream. Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter, Wildord Brimely, David Strathairn, Ed Harris, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Paul Sorvino are all in top form while Cruise puts in a strong shift as he was, at the time, just emerging from the shadow of his late 80’s “pretty face” status. However, it’s Gene Hackman as Cruise’s incorrigible yet charming mentor who steals the show. The movie comes alive the moment he shows up and he adds much needed droll to the otherwise stiff suited side to the movie. As as you’d expect from the man behind some of the great 70’s thrillers, Sydney Pollack ratchets up the tension and strikes a relatively even balance with the personal drama even if he could do nothing for the Cruise-Tripplehorn mismatch as husband and wife! He does however manage to keep his audience distracted from the story’s sometimes ludicrous plot developments – a useful skill for a Grisham thriller! John Seale’s photography gives Memphis an intriguingly inviting yet obscure quality which actually complements the conspiratorial tone of the movie while not alienating the mainstream audience. Ditto Robert Towne, David Raybe, and David Rayfiel’s screenplay. It’s just a shame that Dave Grusin’s score couldn’t do the same as it bounces buoyantly among the octaves, too often oblivious to the cadences of the script. The whole thing runs about 35 minutes too long but it’s worth hanging in there if only to see Tom use his briefcase to beat seven shades of crap out of Brimely’s slightly ridiculous but eminently enjoyably bag man.

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.3
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Duration: 81 mins
Director: John Sturges
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin

“I’m half horse, half alligator. Mess with me and I’ll kick a lung out of ya.” Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and the immortal Spencer Tracy star in this gritty WW II era western. Tracy stars as a disabled veteran who arrives in a one-horse town to look up the father of a Japanese-American soldier who saved his life whilst giving up his own in the process. Met with paranoia, aggression, and fear he soon begins to suspect that the townspeople are guilty of a dark secret concerning the Japanese father. Tracy was always the best at playing the iron willed moral compass of a film and in this film he hones that skill to a fine point in what must be one of his finest performances. The bad guys are all played with suitable menace with Marvin and Ryan standing out in particular. Director John Sturges lets the considerable tension simmer just beneath the surface for most of the film but when Tracy squares off against the various villains that tension becomes palpable. Though the drama builds up slowly, Sturges gives the story a real sense of urgency beginning with that thumping introduction as the camera moves in on Tracy’s train hurtling through the desert towards the dark truth. There are some truly outstanding action sequences including a tasty fight between Borgnine and Tracy where the latter gives us one of the earliest glimpses of martial arts fighting in a Hollywood picture. Bad Day at Black Rock is a remarkable film defined by some career-best performances, a brave story, and some extremely inspired direction that was well ahead of its time.

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The Parallax View (1974) 4.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 79.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels

Alan J. Pakula’s film is the perfect case of form following function. A series of seemingly unrelated deaths gives a lone journalist (Warren Beatty) reason to believe he has uncovered the existence of a shadowy organisation of specialist contract killers. An American film about political assassinations set in the paranoid years of the early 70′s was always going to be dark and uncomfortable but Pakula takes it to the extreme here but not in any overtly obvious way. Ending many scenes with either an abrupt sense of closure or an ambiguous one, Beatty’s character drifts through the film as though he was never in command of his own destiny. There are lighter moments but they come off as slightly forced and out of pace with the rest of the film such as the bar-fight or the slightly ludicrous car chase. However, any such weaknesses are offset by some terrific sequences such as the famous Parallax assessment scene or that marvelous opening to the film. Michael Small’s music is timeless and was a definite influence on his later even more emphatic Marathon Man score. Overall, The Parallax View is one of the best representatives of a vintage of film-making that has never been matched in terms of the unsettled sense of being it instills in us.

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Cypher (2002) 1.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.1
Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction
Duration: 95 mins
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Stars: Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu, Nigel Bennett

Cypher (or “Brainstorm” as it was released in Europe) is an interesting attempt at intelligent science fiction that looks and feels different to most other efforts. Jeremy Northam is a corporate spy who is employed by a technology company to spy on its competitor. However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s involved in something much bigger where the walls of reality are obscured and where his life as he knew it is in jeopardy. It’s difficult to describe this one without giving away too much of the plot but, suffice to say, there are definite shades of The Parallax View here.

Strangely enough, the major strength and weakness of this movie both lie in its look. The cold grading of the picture particularly in the first act gives everything an edgy and impersonal tone and when juxtaposed with the more bizarrely shot latter stages, it works a treat both in helping the narrative and grounding the shifting perspective of Northam’s character. However, this also makes the earlier parts to the film rather inaccessible on an emotional level. This is compounded by the fact that there is nothing to entice the audience into the story beyond the mystery. The scenario which Northam’s character finds himself in precludes us from getting to know him and while that is definitely the point, it alienates us from the lead to some degree. On top of that, the story over-complicates itself to the point where the ultimate revelation is clearly evident before it happens simply because it’s the only resolution that makes sense. Despite these reservations, hardcore sci-fi fans should really enjoy the intellectual roller-coaster ride but unfortunately it fails to be anything more than a good genre film.

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Pelican-Brief

The Pelican Brief (1993) 3.09/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 141 mins
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard

Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of John Grisham’s novel is a somewhat ponderous tale of political intrigue concerning the assassination of two Supreme Court judges and the law student and journalist who uncover the plot. Julia Roberts plays the determined law student and Denzel Washington the hot shot journalist who compile and investigate the dangerously accurate theory of why the judges were killed while dodging bullets, car bombs, and anything else the assassins who are pursuing them can come up with.

The plot to the film has a classical edge to it in that it’s simple in essence but revolves around a number of parties. It unfolds in a way that adds colour to the story and keeps the audience guessing which is exactly what you want from a thriller. Pakula’s direction of the tenser moments is fine if a little underwhelming but his ability to build tension through pacing and framing works its usual magic in the earlier sequences. A scene introducing Stanley Tucci’s hit-man recalls some of the cloak and dagger intrigue of All the Presidents’ Men and the patient buildup of the assassinations echoes similar sequences in The Parallax View.

Moreover, what some might consider a weakness – the lack of a romantic relationship between the two central characters – is actually one of the movie’s strengths, adding, as it does, more interest and unspoken depth to their interchanges. A central platonic dynamic wasn’t decided upon for that reason, however, but  rather because Hollywood still had (had?) a problem with interracial romances back in the 90’s. Thankfully, that’s all changed…!

The problem with the movie emerges as it progresses. Roberts’ star was at its zenith around the time that this film was made and it leads to a peculiar problem. The movie seems to be caught between being a substantial thriller where plot comes first and a vehicle for its headline act. Thus, when the story needs to be pushed forward it often stands still for an unnecessarily long emotional scene in which Julia shows off her acting chops. This places a drag on the film’s momentum and affects the relevance of other characters, many of whom, are relegated to obscure cameos. Sam Shepard is more than capable in one of the more extended roles (Roberts’ law professor and secret lover) as is John Lithgow (Washington’s editor) but Tony Goldwyn (the president’s nefarious chief counsel) and particularly William Atherton (the Head of CIA) are wasted.

Though neither as popular nor respected as Roberts was at time time, Washington was himself arguably climbing rapidly towards the peak of his powers in the early-mid 90’s. Yet, he almost gets lost here. Not for a lack of talent of course but because the story seems to realign itself with Robert’s character at times when his character should be coming to the fore. Roberts, for her part, was never a bad actress and she had and continues to have huge presence. She’s quite good in the role of the frightened yet wilful young go-getter but her character’s whispering grief at key moments in the film can be a little irritating – like listening to someone in need of a good cough!

For hardened fans of intrigue and shadowy plot, The Pelican Brief will fall far short of those classics that gave its sub-genre and the film’s director its standing. Nonetheless, it remains a worthy stab at a Grisham legal thriller and there’s enough there to satisfy anyone looking for a couple of hours of engaging conspiracy drama.

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Winter’s Bone (2010) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.8
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Debra Granik
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt

Daniel Woodrell’s novel is given a pared down but respectful treatment in this assured adaptation and surprise 2010 hit. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a “star is born” performance as Ree, a self-sufficient 17 year old from an impoverished mountain family and surrogate mother to her younger siblings in the absence of her criminal father and her mentally ill mother. Having grown up in a culture of lawlessness, she tries to keep her brother and sister away from the local business of meth production but supporting them with no means of income isn’t easy. Things hit breaking point when her father puts up their home as collateral for his bail bond only to go missing on his release. This forces Ree to track him down if she is to keep a roof over her family’s head. However, every where she looks, she is met with resistance and outright malice as she’s warned away in increasingly severe fashion. Only her locally feared uncle (John Hawkes) seems willing to help, if reluctantly so in the beginning.

Set in the back end of the Ozarc mountains, Winter’s Bone takes us into a world that movies don’t visit too often and such is the attention to detail that, despite the obviously rich dramatisation, Winter’s Bone at least feels very authentic. As such, writer-director Debra Granik is able to, quite sneakily, make the experience of that world as central to the movie as the plot is. She allows the film to rest on those moments that distinguish the characters’ way of life from their socialising and their dialogue even to the manner in which they get their food. There’s no doubt that this makes for a more engaging film but at times, she and her co-writer Anne Rosellini go too far with the regional dialogue. Making it centre stage and stretching its use beyond that which seems probable eventually takes too much attention away from the plot and the film can lose momentum from time to time. Her direction shows greater sturdiness making maximum use of a minimal budget by utilising the bleak landscape of wintertime Missouri to enhance the coldness of the script and frame the entire film with a desolation and wildness. The sense of outsiderness in Ree’s community is thus accentuated as, more and more, we get the feeling that these people have been, at best, living in parallel with the rest of the 21st century.

This is a dark portrayal of a way of life so palpable and so fraught with foreboding that it feels more like a thriller than a drama. But a drama it is for the essence of the story is Ree’s strength of purpose. Refusing to feel sorry for her predicament, she soldiers through the film driven by an unwilting desire to do what her family need her to do. It could make for a rather plain performance in the wrong hands but so dexterous is Lawrence that she’s able to reveal enough nuances as she goes to give Ree’s focused pursuit some genuine texture.

The edge to this film is provided by its support cast with Hawkes showing yet again why he’s one of America’s most underrated actors in an intense but well judged turn as the vicious but ultimately caring uncle. Dale Dickey is similarly impressive as the battle axe matron of a powerful local family and while her character’s actions get a little silly towards the end, she helps substantially in painting the film’s more menacing tones. Winter’s Bone isn’t the easiest watch given its no holes barred storyline and bleak direction but it’s deeply compelling and, regardless of its few missteps, it carries you right through to the end. It ran out a deserved winner of 2010’s Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and helped make the career of one of acting’s brightest talents but be warned, Walton’s Mountain it ain’t!

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Blow Out (1981) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow

If Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie was made today by someone like Quentin Tarantino, it would be hailed as a masterpiece which defines the fresh playfulness of the modern cinematic era….and rightly so. However, this just goes to show how ahead of his time De Palma actually was (or how slow mainstream cinema was in catching up). John Travolta stars as a B-movie sound man who while out one night recording stock sounds, ends up recording a car accident from which he rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen). When he tells the police that the accident sounded like it was preceded by a gun shot he gets told to keep it quiet and when he tries to go about proving it with his recording he inadvertently puts the girl’s life in danger.

Blow Out opens with a delicious film-within-a-film vignette as Travolta and his on-screen director are watching the dailies of their latest slasher film – which is so well lit and staged that you wouldn’t mind seeing the full feature! This sets a tone to the movie that persists throughout as Travolta uses the tools of movie making to elucidate the crime that De Palma’s movie is built around. This gives the entire movie a kind of through-the-looking-glass feel as everything seems overtly cinematic and otherworldly. The lighting and production design are vividly captured and De Palma’s striking use of staging even in the quieter, more insignificant moments seems conspicuously relevant to the movie’s vibe. The characters too, in particular Allen’s ditsy female lead and John Lithgow’s creepy assassin, feel purposefully overblown.

As is typical with De Palma, there are a host of dazzling set pieces (arguably more here than in any of his other movies) the best of which surely being that ingeniously crafted night-time sound recording scene. Travolta is in top form and his relationship with Allen’s character is believable and interesting yet much different to the malevolent pairing they shared in Carrie. Lithgow is equally entertaining in a peculiar sort of way.

Blow Out is a movie-lover’s delight and required viewing for anyone who enjoys intelligent cinema. It’s dark, it’s suspenseful, and like all De Palma’s great work, it’s wonderfully dramatic.

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Missing (1982) 4.14/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.9
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 122  mins
Director: Costa-Gavras
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron

Costa-Gavras’ gem of a film chronicles the true story of a political writer (played by John Shea) based in Chile during the revolutionary turmoil of the 1970′s who disappears after he is taken away by the military. The story follows the attempts of his wife (the wonderful Sissy Spacek) and his father (a sterling turn by Jack Lemmon) to find out where he is and what happened to him. Shea is fine if a little wooden but he is only really a support player as this movie is all about Lemmon and Spacek’s considerable performances and on-screen dynamic. Costa-Gavras structures the film superbly and bookends the film in a profoundly clever manner. All in all, Missing is a glowing testament to the quiet power of cinema and not to be missed if you like slow-burning political thrillers.

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