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Toni Servillo as Silvio Berlusconi

“LORO” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 11 at the Screenland Armour)

151 minutes | No MPAA rating

Italian politico Silvio Berlusconi, the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s hallucinatory “Loro,” is described by one of his cronies as the world’s greatest salesman.

Indeed, early on we see Berlusconi (who, like Donald Trump, employed shameless lying to make the leap from amoral business tycoon to amoral national leader) convincing his grandson that although it appears that Grandpa has stepped in dog shit while strolling across the lawn of his Sardinian palace, in fact that is not the case. Grandpa would never step in dog shit.

Truth is, Berlusconi — played by the spectacularly slimy Toni Servillo — is damn near wading in dog shit, but he has an uncanny  ability to spin any situation to make himself look good. Later on he randomly picks a number from the phone book, calls it and posing as a realtor tries to sell a make-believe apartment to the woman who answers. He damn near convinces her, too.

“Loro”  concentrates on Berlusconi in the late 2000s, when he was out of office and scheming to get back in. It is less a standard biography than a sort of drug-drenched fantasia, a “La Dolce Vida” for the age of cocaine.

Sorrentino, who most recently has given us “Youth” and “The Great Beauty,”  alternates scenes of Berlusconi in exile with moments from the life of the pimpish Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a young Sardinian mover and shaker who surrounds himself with legions of beautiful young women and hopes to use them to worm his way into Berlusconi’s corridors of power. (After all, it is well known that Berlusconi is fond of throwing “bunga bunga” parties filled with naked lovelies.)

Riccardo Scamarcio

There’s no real plot here, just scenes from Berlusconi’s life in exile. Much of “Loro” plays like an X-rated music video, with sinuous bodies writing to house music beat. It’s absolutely hypnotic.

In fact, “Loro” is one of the most devastatingly beautiful films of recent years.  That it accomplishes this while on focusing on a smarmy pol whose face is frozen in a ghastly grin only makes the whole thing more remarkable.

The 2-hour-31-minute version of the film being shown in the U.S. is an full hour shorter than the original Italian. No doubt Italian audiences already familiar with Berlusconi’s antics and will respond enthusiastically to the film’s satire.

For those of us who know relatively little about Italian politics,”Loro” is a mixed bag.  It starts out strong, seducing us with sex and beauty and lovely landscapes.  But the deeper we get into its subject, the more soulless it becomes. By the end you’re in the mood for a nice hot shower.

| Robert W. Butler

Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgard

“VILLAINS” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 11 at the Screenland Armour)

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The ironically titled “Villains” makes audiences  root for a pair of truly stupid criminal lovers by providing antagonists who are infinitely worse.

In Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s black comedy, Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are the stars of their own sweetly demented version of “Gun Crazy.”  They are to real criminals what white suburban teens are to genuine gang bangers — they talk tough and are sexually turned on by  criminal behavior, but they’re so thick they don’t think to fill the tank of their getaway vehicle before robbing a convenience store.

Running out of gas just miles from their latest heist, the pair ditch the car and take refuge in blandly posh manse in the woods.  Nobody’s home, so they figure they can hang out there for a while.

That’s until they find a mute 10-year-old girl chained in the basement and are interrupted by the arrival of homeowners George and Gloria (Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick), who are also serial kidnappers/killers.

Gloria is a Southern belle so off the charts that she believes  a porcelain-headed doll is her actual child (she makes Blanche Dubois look like the poster girl for emotional stability).  Hubby George is a golden-voiced charmer, a Dixie gentleman who can explain away even the most hair-raising ugliness with a barrage of reassuring   bromides. (Am I the only one who suspects Donovan is doing a vocal imitation of Kevin Spacey in his “House of Cards” role?) Continue Reading »

Joaquin Phoenix

“JOKER” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier teamed up to make a superhero movie, the result would be just like “Joker.”

Less conventional comic book material than existential scream, Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary D.C. villain gives us Joaquin Phoenix as a hapless loser transformed by isolation and grief into a clown-faced avenging angel.

This grim — as in NOT FUN — yarn unfolds not in some make-believe alternative universe (the traditional Tim Burton-ized abode of comic book sagas) but in a Gotham City that looks, sounds and seems even to smell like the dystopian NYC of the 1970s, replete with wall-to-wall graffiti and mounds of garbage thanks to a strike by city workers.

There’s nothing supernatural offered by Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, no fantastic science fiction machines or surgeries, nobody gifted with special powers.

Just the eternally miserable Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a human wraith doomed by genetics and circumstance to live in brutal isolation.

Arthur  works as a professional clown (children’s parties, sidewalk huckstering) and aspires to do stand up — which is odd because he is stupendously unfunny.

Street punks beat him up. When nervous — pretty much all the time — he breaks into uncontrollable laughter.  It’s actually a medical condition for which he takes an array of prescriptions.  Except that the city agency that provides drugs and counseling (Arthur spent some of his young adulthood in a mental ward) has lost its funding. Now he’s on his own.

“The worst thing about having mental illness,” he observes, “is that people expect you to act like you don’t.”

At home in a peeling apartment he feeds and bathes his aged mother (Frances Conroy); their relationship is essentially loving, but it’s pretty clear that Mom is delusional.  She insists on sending pleading letters to her long-ago employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), an oligarchical fascist making a run for mayor. (Yes, that Thomas Wayne, father of young Bruce, who will one day become Joker’s arch nemesis Batman.)

But then Arthur has his own issues with reality. He fantasizes that he appears on the late-night talk show of his favorite TV personality, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Movie buffs will no doubt pick up some residual vibes from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro played a pathologically inept standup comic.

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Rene Zellweger as Judy Garland

“JUDY” My rating: B

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

One of the biggest thrills in moviegoing is seeing a familiar performer sink so completely into a character that you forget who  you’re watching.

That’s the case with Rene Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in “Judy.”  Bet she’s already cleared space on the mantel for another Oscar.

Scripted by Tom Edge and directed by Ruper Goold, “Judy” is a film whose flaws are more than compensated for by a monumental performance.

Set in 1969, the last year of Garland’s life, when she was persona non grata in Hollywood and had to travel to London to get a nightclub gig, the film has some rough spots, particularly in its depiction of a once-great talent circling the drain. It’s pretty depressing stuff.

But Zellweger’s portrayal lifts the entire enterprise. She not only looks like the 47-year-old, drug-worn Garland, but she channels the star’s eccentric body language. And she sings Garland’s songs — not as well as Garland did, but enough to wow moviegoers. (It helps that by this time in her career Garland’s power was more in her unique delivery than vocal strength.)

We meet Judy and her two young children returning to L.A. from a tour playing clubs in the South. It’s not a happy homecoming — they’re evicted from their hotel for back rent, and Judy’s ex, agent Sid Luft (Rupert Sewell) says that while he’ll take in the kids, he’s also going to sue for custody.

The only way to get enough cash to make her case in court is for Judy to take a gig in London, performing at a club run by a no-nonsense promoter (Michael Gambon); wise to his star’s reputation for temperamental meltdowns, he assigns a handler (“Wild Roses'” Jessie Buckley) to coax, cajole and physically push the quaking singer out onto the stage.

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” My rating: B+ 

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Feature film spinoffs of successful TV series have an iffy track record (“Sex and the City,” “Entourage,” “Absolutely Fabulous”), but the folks at “Downton Abbey” have done it right.

The new “Downton Abbey” movie is an astonishingly effective piece of work, one that hits all the notes that made the TV show so successful and then adds a couple of new ones.

Will the movie make sense to anyone who wasn’t glued to PBS on Sunday nights?  Well, maybe, but the real pleasure here comes from continuing our relationships with characters we already know inside out.  It’s like a family reunion…only you actually like hanging with this family.

Writer Julian Fellowes, who created the series and scripted most of its episodes, provides a screenplay that gives almost every member of the huge cast at least one memorable moment and effortlessly balances multiple story threads.

Director Michael Engler deftly handles the pacing and the impressive technical production (he’s in charge of the actors, too but since most of these players have been doing their characters for the better part of a decade, how much coaching could they have required?).

The plot? Well, there are a dozen of them, but the overriding one has the King and Queen visiting Downton. It’s like when the FBI takes over a local murder investigation…Their Majesties’ arrogant retainers invade the Abbey, relegating the resident staff to observer status.  But not for long, thanks to machinations that come off as a more genteel iteration of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

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Brad Pitt

“AD ASTRA” My rating: B

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Equal parts “2001” and “Apocalypse Now,” James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is meditative journey to both outer and inner space punctuated with moments of high melodrama.

The film is drop-dead beautiful and features a contemplative performance from Brad Pitt which is among his finest; best of all, one leaves it feeling we’ve truly been on an intergalactic journey.

In the near future Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is a model astronaut, though in voiceover narration he reveals the price of the clear, dispassionate thinking that makes him the equal of any situation.

McBride is a master at suppressing his emotions, a skill that has wrecked his marriage (his ex, who is seen only briefly, is played by Liv Tyler) but made him the poster boy of space program efficiency. Only the occasional twitch of an eyelid suggests Roy’s inner turmoil.

Moreover, Roy comes by his heroism genetically — his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was an astronaut who decades ago went off on a mission to Neptune to look for extraterrestrial life and hasn’t been heard from for 30 years.

As “Ad Astra” begins Roy is doing maintenance work on a radio tower so tall its upper reaches scrape the stratosphere.  A mysterious electrical pulse blows the tower’s power grid, sending our man in freefall back to Earth.

Roy survives, thanks to his parachute, but he subsequently learns in a top secret briefing that the authorities believe the damaging electromagnetic pulses are coming from Neptune, the last-known location of the elder McBride’s exploratory ship. If Roy’s father is behind these pulses — which threaten human life — perhaps a message from his son will bring a happy resolution.

The plan is for Roy to radio his Pops from an outpost on Mars.  First, though, he has to take a commercial shuttle to the moon (a pillow and blanket kit costs $150), then make his way to a launch complex on the dark side of that satellite (apparently the moon is an international combat zone with marauding pirates on speeding lunar rovers attempting to highjack official vehicles).

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Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

“HUSTLERS” My rating: C+

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hustlers” arrives on a wave of fest-generated hype: It’s one of the year’s best!!!  Jennifer Lopez is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination!!!

Uh, sorry, but I don’t see it.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is ambitious, certainly, telling the fact-based story of a group of exotic dancers who in the decade after the big market meltdown reacted to economic challenges by luring, drugging and ripping off wealthy men, sometimes for as much as $50,000 a pop.

It offers a charismatic and glamorous turn from Lopez, who is compellingly watchable as the nurturing (until she isn’t) pole dancer/housemother of this group of female marauders. Even more of a revelation is Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as the new girl at the strip joint through whose eyes we witness it all.

But despite its welcome depiction of mutually supportive sisterhood, Scafaria’s film becomes bogged down in sticky moral entanglements.  Even more problematic, this is an emotionally chilly yarn exhibiting little warmth or open compassion for its characters.

Given that the few men depicted here are unsalvageable swine and the ladies are equally predatory…who are we supposed to root for?

The story begins in 2006 with Destiny (Wu) struggling to get into the swing of things at a noisy, dark, raunchy NYC exotic dancing club.  She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), who gives her an impressive tutorial of pole moves (I particularly liked “the table”) and coaches her in the art of squeezing money out of arrogant Wall Street sphincters.

But in the wake of the big crash the high rollers aren’t rolling much.  Ramona cooks up a special drug cocktail — it makes its victims gleefully happy while erasing their short-term memories — and with Destiny and a small crew of out-of-work dancers targets and rips off moneyed fat cats.

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Linda Ronstadt then

“LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE” My rating: B+

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

This seems to be the season for music documentaries (“Echo in the Canyon,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name”) but the hands-down winner when it comes to pure musical pleasure is “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” which will send you away convinced that its subject was the greatest pop female vocalist of all time.

Ron Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film is covers Ronstadt’s life in straightforward fashion, beginning with her grandparents (her father’s people hailed from Mexico despite the Germanic-sounding name), her childhood in Tucson with a musical family, her move to LA as an 18-year-old, her brief stint as lead singer with the Stone Ponies…and then 30-some years of recording and performing greatness.

Ronstadt narrates the film — we don’t see her as she appears today until the very end — but the story is told from a variety of perspectives:  her fellow musicians (Jackson Browne, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Rhy Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris), her producers and managers (David Geffen, Peter Asher), her one-time lover J.D.Souther and journalists who covered her (Cameron Crowe, Robert Hilburn).

This is the story of an immensely talented woman who often doubted her own abilities, yet nevertheless challenged herself to new heights…not only in pop fame but on Broadway (starring in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”), as a purveyor of Sintra-ish torch songs (arranged by Nelson Riddle, no less), in a country trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and with traditional Mexican musicians (Ronstadt’s is the best-selling trad Mexican LP of all time).

Along the way she established an image (not that it was in any way calculated) as a playful, sexy, smart woman who went her own way.  She was a matter-of-fact feminist; no stridency, just effectiveness. (One source says that in her prime Rondstadt was “the Queen…like Beyonce is now.”)

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“THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON” My rating: B

93 minutes | PG-13

So adept are the makers of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” at provoking laughter and tears that it may take a few hours for the rosy glow to wear off, at which point the viewer realizes he has fallen for a narrative con job.

But it’s such an effective con that most of us will shrug off any flickers of resentment in order to prolong the experience’s many satisfactions.

This feature debut from the writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz opens in a retirement home where one resident stands out.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is 22-year-old with Downs syndrome.  Recently orphaned and deemed incapable of caring for himself, this unfortunate ward of the state (in this case, Georgia) has been warehoused among  dementia-plagued seniors.

Sounds grim, but the screenplay and direction immediately announce that it’s okay to laugh. Early on Zak elicits the cooperation of his fellow “inmates” to stage a jail break.  It’s short lived because even running at top speed Zak is hopelessly slow.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) mans a one-man fishing boat working the Outer Banks. He’s a bearded outcast not above raiding the crab pots of other fishermen; after starting a fire that destroys a rival’s precious equipment, Tyler finds himself on the lam.

“…Falcon” throws together  Zak — who has run away wearing only a pair of tidy whities and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler  — and the fugitive Tyler, who slowly warms to his new companion’s hilarious innocence.

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Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Al Pacino

“ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD”  My rating: B+

161 minutes |MPAA  rating: R

Crammed with alternately bleak and raucous humor, a palpable affection for Tinseltown’s past and peccadilloes, and enough pop cultural references to fuel a thousand trivia nights, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is a moviegoer’s dream.

Here writer/director Quentin Tarantino eschews his worst tendencies (especially his almost adolescent addiction to racial name-calling) and delivers a story that despite many dark edges leaves us basking in the sunny California sunshine.

Each scene has been exquisitely crafted with every element — art direction, costuming, cinematography, editing, acting — meshing in near perfection.

In the process Tarantino rewrites history, blithely turning a real-life tragedy into a fictional affirmation of positivity. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

The heroes (??) of this 2 1/2-hour opus are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star of TV westerns who now (the time is 1969) sees his career circling the crapper, and his stunt double, the laconic tough guy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who not only steps in to perform dangerous feats on the set but serves as Rick’s best bud, Man Friday and chauffeur (Rick’s had one too man DUIs).

Tarantino’s script finds the  alternately cocky and weepy Rick (DiCaprio has rarely been better) lamenting his fading status in the industry (he’s been reduced to playing villains in episodic TV) and contemplating the offer of a semi-sleazy producer (Al Pacino) to make spaghetti Westerns in Europe.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

Cliff, meanwhile, picks up an underaged hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who takes him to one of his old haunts, the Spahn ranch, an Old West movie set now occupied by one Charles Manson and his family of hippie misfits.

Newly arrived at the home next to Rick’s on Cielo Drive is director Roman Polanski and his beautiful actress wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate is a sweetheart, an all-American beauty radiating an almost angelic innocence and positivity. But we can’t help twitching in anxiety…after all, everybody knows that in ’69 she and her houseguests were the victims of a horrific murder spree by Manson’s brainwashed minions.

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“THE LION KING” My rating:  B-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The original 1994 “Lion King” was classic Disney animation featuring hand drawn backgrounds and characters — or if  computers sometimes were used, at least the final product appeared to be hand drawn.

A quarter century later we get a “Lion King” redux done in a live-action format…though one cannot begin to figure out what (if anything) is live and what rendered through the ones and zeroes of digital animation.

There are moments, especially early on, when Jon Favreau’s updating of the beloved yarn offers such a sumptuous  visual feast that the eye and mind struggle to take it all in.

Against an absolutely believable African landscape lifelike lions, elephants, impalas, hyenas and other creatures do their things.  Your senses tell you that these are real animals filmed in action (after all, the great Caleb Deschenal — “The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Passion of the Christ” — is credited as cinematographer)…except that invariably these creatures do something no animal ever could.

A lion tamer with years to refine his act could never get actual big cats to hit their marks, strike perfect poses and execute complicated action sequences. Not to mention move their mouths to utter dialogue in human voices.

Indeed, I have no idea how this was done. Were live animals filmed and then digitally diddled to make them do the impossible?  Do the backgrounds even exist? Or were they built entirely in the computer?

Let it be said up front that “The Lion King” is one of the most amazing-looking films of all time. The work Favreau did a couple of years back on the similarly-rendered  “Jungle Book” looks a bit  primitive by comparison.

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Anton Yeltsin

“LOVE, ANTOSHA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

I knew who Anton Yeltsin was, of course.  I’d seen the young actor as Chekhov in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboots, and in a couple of other movies like Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver.”

And of course I knew he died in 2017 at age 27 in a freak accident, pinned against a metal gate by his rolling automobile.

None of which prepared me for the gut punch that is “Love, Antosha,” a love letter to the late actor signed by his parents, his boyhood friends, and his heavy-hitting acting colleagues.

It seems nobody who knew Yeltsin had anything but love for him. And that emotion comes roiling off the screen.

Garret Price’s documentary opens with home movies from Yeltsin’s childhood. What we see is an impossibly handsome kid with a big performer’s personality that fills the room.

We also get a bit of back story about his parents,  competitive Soviet ice dancers who emigrated to the U.S.A. to get away from growing anti-Semitism in the new Russian Republic.

Here’s something I did not know:  While a teen Anton was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, the devastating lung condition (the average life expectancy of a sufferer is 37 years). He was so full of energy, so good at masking his symptoms and plowing ahead, that many of his show biz colleagues were unaware that he had gone through life essentially under a death sentence.

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“AQUARELA” My rating: C+

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Technically classified as a documentary, “Aquarela” might more accurately be described as slow-moving wallpaper.

The subject of Viktor Kossakovsky’s film is water and its power. There is no narrator, no graphics, no argument made or thesis stated.

The film’s first 20 minutes unfold on a frozen bay in Greenland where a team of rescue workers use primitive muscle-powered winches to extract from the frigid waters automobiles that have broken through the ice.  During the winter local drivers use the frozen bay as a shortcut, but as spring approaches this becomes an iffy proposition.

One man, soaking wet and frantic after his car has vanished, taking with it his passenger, is asked why he  risked it. He responds that the ice isn’t supposed to melt for another three weeks.

That’s as close as “Aquarela” comes to making an overt statement about global warming.

We get long passages of vivid blue glaciers calving, creating mountainous icebergs that dwarf the ships which share their waters. Marine photography reveals the abstract beauty of bergs below the water line.

Another segment unfolds aboard a yacht where the swells and storms create a terrifying environment.

There are spectacular jungle cataracts that generate their own misty rainbows, and news footage of hurricane-force winds lashing coastal cities and flooding streets. Monster waves charging ashore.

Some of this is spectacular, some beautiful.

But isn’t this lazy documentary-making?  How about some insight, some perspective?

Some viewers will find “Aquarela’s” glacial pace and gorgeous imagery hypnotically compelling.

Others will find in it a surefire cure for insomnia.

Place me somewhere in the middle.

| Robert W. Butler

Peter Sarsgaard

“THE SOUND OF SILENCE” My rating: C+

87 minutes | MPAA rating:

Before it goes off the philosophical rails and disappears up its own nether regions, “The Sound of Silence” casts an eerie spell.

Our protagonist is acoustic specialist Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard), a self-described “house tuner.”

Peter is paid to visit the apartments of his fellow New Yorkers, bringing a suitcase filled with tuning forks and tape recorders.  His job is to study the “sound environment,” identifying and eliminating aural anomalies that may be responsible for sleeplessness, anxiety, and a whole host of psycho-physical modern maladies.

For instance,  he may discover that the musical voice of a client’s heating system creates dissonance when heard in conjunction with the imperceptible sounds emitted by an electric toaster. Time to get a new Sunbeam.

Sounds like woo-woo, but Peter has recently been written up in The New Yorker. So there.

Michael Tyburski’s debut film (the screenplay is by Ben Nabors)  is nothing if not out there. In mood and overall story arc it bears more than a little resemblance to “The Conversation,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic about a sound technician whose specialty is surreptitiously recording conversations under impossible circumstances.

Peter is pretty much obsessed with his  inquiries.  He often walks through Manhattan wearing sound-cancelling earphones; at other times he stands in public places twanging his tuning forks and taking acoustic readings.

He’s studying “harmonic resonance,” all so that he can develop a sort of unified field theory of sound.  His research has already drawn the attention of an industrialist (Bruce Altman) who has big plans to monetize it, but Peter is a purist.  His dream is to have all his findings published in a scholarly journal.  Only then will he consider the commercial applications.

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