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Kevin Durand

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Hallows, Four, Speeches, Grit, and Sky.

In the trailer bin of late:

  • Death comes to Hogwarts, and young Master Potter must beat it back one final time — but not before moping across the English countryside for two hours — in the full trailer for David Yates’ first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with the usual gang (and Bill Nighy) in tow. Not a big fan of the 7th book, but let’s face it, we’re all pot-committed at this point.

  • I was a Teenage Alien? No, it’s the teaser for D.J. Caruso’s I am Number Four, with Alex Pettyfer, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Kevin Durand and Timothy Olyphant. Mr. Seth Bullock notwithstanding, that bland, Twilight-y cast and the February release date suggests to me this is eminently missable.

  • King George isn’t mad, per se. But he does suffer from a rather serious stammer in the trailer for Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Jennifer Ehle, and Guy Pearce. The trailer looks a bit too inspirational-true-story! and Oscar-baitish to me, but word of mouth on this has been g-g-g-g…well, ok, very good.

  • And, saving the best for last, a young girl — younger even than Kim Darby — (Hailee Steinfeld) enlists the services of one Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for an Old West mission of vengeance in the first trailer for the Coens’ remake of True Grit, also with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper. You know how I am about the Coens. I’ll be there.

  • Update: One more for the pile: Independence Day meets Cloverfield in the trailer for the Straus brothers’ Skyline, with Donald Faison, Eric Balfour, David Zayas, Scottie Thompson, and Brittany Daniel. Eh, the FX look rather impressive, if nothing else.

Slings and Arrows.

I’ll give it this: Ridley Scott’s high-minded, lavish, and more-than-a-little-dull take on Robin Hood, which I sense slipping from memory less than a week after I saw it, was actually better than I had expected going in. In fact, if you go for medieval sieges and Anglo-French intrigue and whatnot, the movie is even vaguely pleasant for most of its run, in a well-made-but-snoozy, BBC-production sort of way. But, with the possible exception of seeing another late-career turn by Max Von Sydow (who has more to do here than in Shutter Island) I just can’t find a reason to recommend spending two-plus hours of precious life watching this film.

For that matter, I can’t figure out the point of making this sort of Robin Hood in the first place. On its face, what we have here is one part superhero origin-story, a la Batman Begins and Casino Royale, and three-parts “the real story behind the legend,” like Troy and King Arthur. To which I say yet again, why not go Liberty Valance with it and just print the Legend? Sure, when it comes to actual, honest-to-goodness events like The Alamo, I prefer the historical approach. But this is Robin Hood — wHy sO sEriOUs? Do we really need all these grim, earnestly realistic, edutainmenty muckrakes through the fiction and folklore of the past? Who enjoys them?

In its favor, Robin Hood doesn’t feel as notably bereft of its legend-y elements as Troy-without-Gods and King Arthur-without-wizards did. Still, the movie is so committed to its Serious Purpose of telling-the-untold-story that, even with occasional flashes of Chaucerian ribaldry — like Von Sydow happily noting his rare “tumescent glow” and Little John (Kevin Durand) insisting he’s “proportionate” — the tale feels mostly robbed of its usual vagabond charm. Simply put, these Men are not Merry. As such, this iteration of Robin Hood ends up feeling a lot like Ridley Scott’s last well-intentioned-but-plodding historical-siege epic with high production values, a cast of hundreds, and no pulse: Kingdom of Heaven. (FWIW, I’ve never seen the much-hyped director’s cut of Kingdom — I saw the deeply boring “Two Towers-knockoff” theatrical version.)

To be fair, the tendency of Robin Hood to read 21st-century mores back into medieval Christendom works better than the exact same failing did in Kingdom. (For one, Robin Hood always was a wealth-redistributor and subverter of authority, albeit not a teabagger. For another, Robin’s nemesis King John really did sign and renounce the Magna Carta. As for Maid Marian turning into Eowyn…well, Joan of Arc‘s only a few centuries down the road, I guess.) But otherwise, Kingdom and Robin Hood are pretty much two peas in a pod — Both are well-made, well-meaning, historically-minded bores.

Given the general lack of inspiration here, one has to wonder what happened to Nottingham, the Robin Hood film Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe said they were making, where the famous tale would be told from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point-of-view (and where Crowe would be playing both Robin and the Sheriff.) Not only does that sound like a more intriguing project, but, let’s face it, Crowe is more of a Sheriff-of-Nottingham kinda guy. As it is, he’s too grim and lumbering to bring much magic to this Sherwood Forest (and, yes, his accent is all over the place.) Yes, Crowe can be a very good actor at times, but he’s just miscast here. (Fwiw, the Sheriff is now a foppish, throwaway character in this telling, played for laughs by the most recent Mr. Darcy, Matthew MacFadyen.)

Still, others fare better. As Marian, Cate Blanchett handles some really clunky writing with her accustomed grace. Mark Strong, late of Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, adds yet another rogue to his gallery as French-loving mini-boss Sir Godfrey and, while his motivations don’t make much sense, he’s still a presence onscreen. I thought Oscar Isaac (who with Strong is a Ridley Scott veteran from the under-appreciated Body of Lies) was particularly solid as the spoiled but not entirely clueless King John.
And, along with the aforementioned Max Von Sydow, the venerable Dame Eileen Atkins is on hand as Eleanor of Aquitaine to give Robin Hood a further touch of class. (In the debit column, Mark Addy is actually fine as Friar Tuck, but, every time he showed up, he made me wish I was watching Red Riding instead. And, for whatever reason, I just can’t take William Hurt seriously anymore. He’s hammier than Walken to me.)

Still, the acting here can’t deflect attention away from the fact that Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is misconceived in fundamental ways. To take another example, the movie begins and ends with two large battle setpieces. First, a French castle is besieged by Robin and the army of King Richard the Lionheart (the seemingly ubiquitous Danny Huston — hey, he does gravitas for cheap!) on the way back from the Crusades. And, in the final reel, Robin and varied English forces try to repel a French invasion in a big and rather nonsensical beach battle. (Question: Why have Robin — an archer — lead a cavalry charge right into the thick of the battle, particularly when the English were already busy decimating the Gauls from the high ground with arrows? Ah, yes, for movie purposes.)

Sure, both of these battles are well-shot and well-executed, as one would come to expect from the director of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. But why are they even part of this story? When did the tale of Robin Hood ever involve large-scale warmaking, or, for that matter, the 13th century version of Saving Private Ryan? Here’s the thread: Bandit steals from rich, gives to poor, makes merry, meets Marian. Rinse, repeat. That’s all you gotta do, people. The story of Robin Hood has endured for centuries now — You don’t have to improve on it or muckrake it to death. Just tell the darned thing well.

Suffer the Kings and Arrows.

In the trailer bin this morning, Russell Crowe grimaces once more for Ridley Scott as the titular character in his take on Robin Hood, also with Cate Blanchett (Maid Marian), Mark Strong (Evil Henchman), Max von Sydow (Pa Marian), Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Kevin Durand (Little John), Oscar Isaac (King John), Danny Huston (Richard the Lionheart), and William Hurt (William Marshall).

Well…ok. But how many times have we seen this movie now? (Not the Robin Hood tale, but the King Arthur-ish “story behind the story” period war epic.) For that matter, how many times has Ridley Scott made this movie now? As such, it’s hard to get too excited about this.

They Kick Ass for the Lord!

(With all apologies to Father McGruder.) Yes, y’all, the End of Days has come. There is a hole in the sky. John Cusack is off floating on his ark. Hobo Viggo and son are somewhere on I-95, “carrying the fire.” And, for their part, bad-ass evangelist Denzel Washington is apparently the last Jehovah’s Witness on Earth, and the fallen angel Paul Bettany is trying to take his broken wings and learn to fly again. (Did you know that every time a bell rings, an angel is shooting somebody in the face?)

In any event, I saw Allen and Albert Hughes’ The Book of Eli and Scott Stewart’s Legion on subsequent weekends (with another vaguely religious-themed movie in between, which I’ll get to in a bit), and they seem like they merit discussing together. Both are post-apocalyptic B-movies, and, weirdly enough, that’s B as in Bible: Both use Judeo-Christian themes as a pretext for ninety minutes or so of Matrix-y ass-kicking. And neither are as smart, entertaining or satisfying in their B-movieness as the Spierig’s recent Daybreakers. Of the two, Legion probably comes closer to finding that popcorn movie groove, just because it makes no bones about being unabashedly dumb — but it too slips off the rails in the final half-hour.

More on that in a bit. Let’s take the Hughes’ Book of Eli first. I should start by saying that I’m glad to see the Hughes brothers making a movie again, although I wish it was one a good deal better than this goofy drek. Their assured, eminently quotable 1993 debut Menace II Society is one of my favorite films of the nineties, and in a perfect world it should have gotten all the many props that went to John Singleton’s more Hollywood’y Boyz n the Hood of 1991. (“Now O-Dog was America’s worst nightmare: Young, black, and don’t give a f**k.“) And their take on From Hell in 2001 was laudably strange and decently compelling — It’s definitely not the worst Alan Moore adaptation out there, by a long shot.

To their credit, the Hughes give this post-apocalyptic America a bleached-out, Big Sky look that’s eye-catching…for the first half-hour of so. (After awhile, there get to be way too many slo-mo hero shots of Denzel and his eventual protege, Mila Kunis.) And, during that opening half-hour, it seems like Book of Eli might make for a pretty solid spaghetti western or samurai flick. There are two kinetic six-or-seven-on-one melees in particular, wherein a motley assortment of Borderlands-style goons and Mad Max castoffs meet the business end of Denzel’s machete, that suggest The Book of Eli will make for a pretty fun B-movie ride.

But then it all starts falling apart, mainly as a result of terrible writing. For it soon becomes clear that Denzel, a.k.a. Eli, is attracting attention in this World Gone Wrong because he is carrying — I kid you not — the Last King James Bible on Earth. Yes, somehow — only thirty years after the nukes fell — every single bible out of every single house, apartment, bookstore, mega-mart, and motel room on the planet has been destroyed…but one. This is apparently, it is said, because the survivors blamed the Bible for the End Times coming and destroyed them all. How the few remaining survivors managed to relay this message all around the world after communications had stopped is left unexplained. Nor do they show the poor irradiated schmoes who were forced to wander from burnt-out church to broken-down motel over those thirty years, scouring the Earth for the estimated 7.5 billion copies of the world’s most reproduced book. And they only missed one!

But that’s not all. So, Denzel is toting around that last Good Book, and the Big Bad of the local Bartertown — Gary Oldman — wants its immense persuasive power for his own. I forget the exact wording, but he does some monologuing to the effect of: Only with that bible in my possession will I have the words to exert my domination over the remnants of humankind! So, in other words, if he gets the Book under his thrall, Oldman will be the new prophet-king of social control. To which I say…huh? First off, at the risk of offending certain readers’ religious sensibilities — move along, Tom Cruise — hasn’t Oldman’s character ever heard of L. Ron Hubbard or Dianetics? (Or seen Zardoz, for that matter?) If you want to set up a new religion with yourself at its center, you don’t really need a KJV bible to do it. Second, it’s made abundantly clear that Oldman knows the bible pretty well from his early days anyway. He can’t just…wing it? How much more would you need other than the stories, which everybody knows, and a few choice excerpts like the Lord’s Prayer?

Not to give the game away, but The Book of Eli also suffers from a truly dumb Shyamalan ending which I will not disclose here. (Suffice to say, A Clockwork Orange notwithstanding, Malcolm McDowell showing up in the late going of any film isn’t usually a mark of quality. And if you really want to know the final turn, I’ll give a hint in spoiler-vision: “What do Rutger Hauer and Zhang Ziyi have in common?“) Now, to be fair to The Book of Eli (and as an AICN commenter pointed out), a lot of sci-fi and fantasy B-movies have plot devices that make it hard to sustain disbelief — time-traveling robots from the future, for example. True, Eli‘s central conceit is roughly similar to the plot of the very good A Canticle for Leibowitz (although that book takes place centuries after the nuclear holocaust, and the Catholic priests involved aren’t trying to preserve the Bible per se.) And, even the next movie I’m about to discuss makes less sense up front than Book of Eli‘s goofy “all the Bibles are gone!” schtick.

The difference is, in those other movies (Legion aside), once you accept the premise that robots can time-travel, Earth is now populated by damn dirty apes, vampires have taken over or whathaveyou, the rest of the story makes decent sense in that world, and is pretty darned entertaining to boot. The Book of Eli…not so much. For one, Denzel’s character is too superhuman throughout — After the first few fracases, there’s no sense at all that he ever might be in danger. More problematically, perhaps realizing that fundamental problem, the screenwriter (Gary Whitta) instead decides to punctuate pretty much every scene with women in sexual peril, a decision which is supremely lazy and, after awhile, borderline misogynistic. (Were you to play a drinking game involving one beverage for every time Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, or any other woman in The Book of Eli is threatened with rape or violence, or those threats are acted upon, you may just end up drunk enough to stop wondering what the hell is wrong with Gary Whitta.)

Anyway, all that aside, there are a few small glimmers of entertainment here and there in the later going, although they’re mostly meta moments: Michael Gambon and Frances De La Tour escape Hogwarts long enough to show up as gun-totin’ redneck cannibals, and both play it like they’re on some kind of dare. And Dracula does get to share another scene with his Renfeld, the inimitable Tom Waits. (Oldman and Washington are professionals anyway — neither condescend to this lousy material.) In the end, though, The Book of Eli is a bad movie with a dumb premise that doesn’t even seem to understand how bad or dumb it is. And that ultimately just makes it worse.

****


Now Scott Stewart’s Legion, on the other hand, wears its B-movie badness like a badge of honor, and that gets some points from me. I mean, Dennis Quaid and Charles Dutton as two short-order cooks, fending off demons in their middle-of-nowhere diner (in a place called Paradise Falls, no less)? These guys are hardened veterans of this sort of thing. They know the score, and they help bring the right sense of proportion to the rest of the survivors, including Adrianne Palicki, Tyrese, Kate Walsh, Willa Holland, and the underrated Lucas Black (who, on Sling Blade alone, really should’ve played Jake Lloyd’s part in The Phantom Menace.) In every scene they’re in, Quaid and Dutton manage to wordlessly convey their understanding that: Look at best, we’re making Tremors here, people.

In Legion, the End of Days wasn’t a man-made screw-up this time. Rather, in a fit of Old Testament wrath, our Father who art in Heaven decides that the whole mankind experiment has totally and utterly failed (maybe He caught wind of the whole reality-TV thing) and thus sends down a few plagues — locusts, angels, and whatnot — to smote us all into oblivion. Fortunately for us, the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) isn’t down with the new program, and so he clips his wings, dons some choice duds and a ridiculous amount of firepower, and becomes humankind’s protector, or at least the protector of an unborn child that apparently will be some kind of second Messiah. (Think John Connor, but biblical.) And if he can save a few diner patrons while he’s at it, well the more the merrier.

So, in other words, if The Book of Eli was a post-apocalyptic western — a Stranger comes to Town and all that — Legion is really more of a zombie movie. It’s a bunch of random strangers thrown together by crisis, trying to survive against impossible supernatural odds without killing each other. Or, in other words, it’s The Prophecy meets Night of the Living Dead meets The Terminator meets Assault on Precinct 13. (At times, it also feels a lot like the considerably better Prince of Darkness, but without Alice Cooper around to play the possessed folk.) And, even more than with Eli, I vibed into its flagrant b-movieness for the first hour or so of its run.

The problem is, Stewart and co-writer Peter Schink don’t really seem to know where they want to take this thing. You know that old saw about throwing a bunch of characters together in a room and pretty soon they start to write themselves? Well, if Legion is any indication, sometimes they don’t. And so the movie starts to lose its early head of B-movie steam by the middle going, as the various survivors pair off and spin their wheels with “character-building” conversations that go nowhere. There are a few funny exchanges, most of which made it into the ubiquitous trailer. (“I don’t even believe in God!” “That’s ok, He doesn’t believe in you either.“) But even more than in most of these flicks, I found myself sitting around waiting for the next attack just to get things moving once more.

And that brings us to the other big problem. The ground rules here don’t make a whole lot of sense. So these zombies are angels? Clearly, gunfire cuts through them like butter, so they don’t seem any different from, you know, zombies. And why are they attacking in waves like this? What’s the plan here? I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but…is He really one for acid-drenched booby traps? Schink and Stewart have one clever conceit here — that the most innocuous-looking people around are the ones you’ll really need to worry about to go bugnuts evil at the drop of a hat. But they just keep reusing it. When an old lady attacks (again, as per the trailer), it’s a clever reversal of expectations. But when little kids and the ice cream man later do the same, it all gets a bit redundant.

By the time the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand, seeming, in all honesty, pretty straight-to-video) shows up in the last half-hour, Legion just gives up any pretense of coherence. I can barely explain anything that happens after the remaining few souls scramble out of the diner, other than to say it really isn’t worth trying to explain anyway. To its credit, Legion may not suffer from the dreary self-seriousness of The Book of Eli, but the last reel is just as convoluted and nonsensical. And, as such, both movies end up feeling a bit like the lurid daydreams of an ADD-afflicted teenager, one who’s fallen asleep after way too much Red Bull, Bible Study, and Modern Warfare 2. It’s time to wrap this up, so if you’ll forgive a really terrible pun: Lacking conviction and passionate intensity, sadly, neither of these flicks are worth a second coming.

Slow Train Coming | How the West was Won (and where it got us).


Although the last act strains credulity quite a bit, James Mangold’s moody, memorable 3:10 to Yuma is nonetheless a worthy foray into the unforgiving territory of the Old West. I’ve never been much for oaters, to be honest, but if they keep making ’em like David Milch’s Deadwood and 3:10 (and, hopefully, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in two weeks), I’m all for a full-fledged return of the cowboy pic. Then again, I guess it’d probably have been hard for 3:10 to falter in any event, with talented actors like Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and others in the respective saddles. Mangold (showing more skill here than he did in Walk the Line) displays an authoritative sense of the genre here, and he doesn’t stint on the fireworks. But, for all the breathtaking “Big Sky Country” vistas and well-executed gunplay on display, the most exciting parts of 3:10 occur in the quiet moments between its two stars, as we watch Crowe (the Black Hat) attempt to wend and worm his way into what remains of (White Hat) Bale’s haunted psyche. With their dark interplay driving 3:10, not even the high suspension of disbelief required by the end, nor an overwrought father-son subplot, manage to derail this train. Come on aboard.

On the outskirts of Bisbee, in the years after the Civil War, an honest life is hard, as attested by the sad fate of one Dan Evans (Bale). Having lost his leg in the service of Abe Lincoln, Evans transplanted his wife (Gretchen Mol, dusty yet luminous) and two sons to the Arizona plains in search of renewal, only to find himself deeply in debt and on the verge of starvation. Dan’s boys, particularly his older son William (Logan Lerman), are humiliated by his failure and seeming weakness…and the rains just ain’t comin’. Meanwhile, the regal, courtly Ben Wade (Crowe), a part-time illustrator and full-time desperado, is living high on the hog, along with his gang of thieves, murderers, and bad, bad men — most notably his adoring #2 Charlie Prince (a.k.a. Ben Foster of Six Feet Under and Freaks & Geeks, strangely eerie and excellent here.) But, after a stagecoach job near Evans’ land, this Jack of Hearts lingers too long back in Bisbee, and is summarily captured by a mishmash of local law enforcement, bounty hunters on the Pinkerton payroll (i.e. a solid Peter Fonda, looking haggard and reminiscent of his dad), and Evans himself, in town to settle a debt one way or another. And, when the local railroad suit (Dallas Roberts) offers a $200 fee that might turn around his struggling fortunes, Evans enlists in the company assembled to take Ben Wade to Yuma Prison, by way of the 3:10 train in Contention. But — and it’s a big but — Wade’s gang is still at large, the forces of Law & Order are amateurish at best (note Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk as a well-meaning veterinarian conscripted into the group) and easily corruptible at worst, and Wade himself is no slouch in the survivability department. By means fair or foul, whether by quoting Scripture with a serpent’s tongue, bashing in a sleeping man’s head with a rock, or tempting Evans (and his son) with all the lucre and pleasurable squalor the ignoble life affords. Ben Wade will do what he must to restore his freedom…

…Or will he? My biggest problem with 3:10 to Yuma, and perhaps it’s also an issue in the Glenn Ford version of 1957 (I haven’t seen it), is that Ben Wade’s motivations grow increasingly confused as the film progresses. Given how easily he subdues certain people at certain times, one begins to wonder what’s keeping Crowe along for this ride, other than a general sense of bemusement about the whole proceedings. By the third act, which devolves into a town-wide shootout at the railroad crossing of Contention, it’s hard to figure exactly why Wade is behaving as he does (or, for that matter, why Evans’ missing leg isn’t a problem as he engages in the cowtown equivalent of Ninja Warrior.) Crowe is given a few lines at various points, and the final shot in the movie, to help explain his reasoning…and I guess it makes a certain amount of sense, from a dramatic perspective. But I’m not sure if I bought it, given all that’s come before.

Still, 3:10 to Yuma is another solid and welcome entrant in the burgeoning ranks of the revisionist western. (Indeed, the film reflects more of the New Western History than it does John Wayne country — For example, there’s a sequence involving evil Luke Wilson overseeing a Chinese railroad camp which is really kinda unnecessary, but I for one just liked seeing a Chinese railroad camp included in the proceedings.) And, as with The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and several other superlative entries in the genre, 3:10 frontlines the question of what code should — and actually does — govern a man’s actions when he is unconstrained by larger society.

Indeed, if you’ll permit me a digression, that was the beauty of Deadwood, a classic show still unsullied by Milch’s later, more confused attempt to fashion a Gospel of Surfing: Watching the varied, colorful residents of the town attempt to create a tentative order out of anarchic disorder: What rules must we live by if we are to live together? What should we do when the plague breaks out? How and when should the municipal government gather, who should attend, and what roles should it take on (and, for that matter, should there be canned peaches or cinnamon served at the meetings?) And, for the coup de grace, Milch offered a wry commentary on the iron fist within the velvet glove of the existing Gilded Age social order (and the ugly commercial realities that drove much of westward expansion.) When the fledgling entity of Deadwood finally ran up against the established authorities, it was not the government of these United States it faced, but rather the ruthless and mighty arm of unchecked Capital. By the end of Season 3, everyone — even the wily, formidable, and take-no-prisoners saloon proprietor Al Swearingen — was eventually forced to bow and succumb before the whims of the Great (and Monied) Man, George Hearst. (As Al put it, “Leviathan f**king smiles.”)

3:10 to Yuma doesn’t cover exactly the same ground as Deadwood, of course (and it has much less time to ruminate in any case.) But, at its heart, in the churning psychological tension between Crowe’s Wade and Bale’s Evans — as well as the omnipresent lure and power afforded by the almighty dollar therein — 3:10 ponders similar western verities. In the absence of external fetters, what drives a man to do the right thing, even to the point of ignoring his own self-preservation? In a world of complicated loyalties and compromising shades of grey, where the law is irrevocably bound up with the interests of the railroads and a struggling farmer and a smirking murderer can draw disparate conclusions from the same Bible, what, even, is the “right” thing in the first place? As today, different men come to different answers amid the open country of the Wild West. What probably matters most, 3:10 seems to suggest by the end, is that a man has some answer he’s ready to live — and die — by. As the cowboy troubador Alias once put it, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” So you’d better do or find something to make your short time in Contention count…’cause no matter how you live your life, that slow train is coming up around the bend, and it ultimately waits for no one.

Smokin’ | Hot.

In the trailer bin, a second look at Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces (or as one AICN wag dubbed it, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Underworld) — I actually had a pass to a screening for this last week, but ended up skipping it…Oh well. And the Shaun of the Dead team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get backup from Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, and Timothy Dalton in the full trailer for Hot Fuzz.

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