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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) (***)

Before moving on to direct films like GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS, OUR TOWN, KINGS ROW and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, Sam Wood helmed two of the Marx. Bros.’ most famous films. OPERA came first followed by A DAY AT THE RACES two years later. As you can see from my star rating and review of RACES, I don’t think that the Marx Bros. films are classics.

They’re funny, but too chaotic at times. It’s the zaniness that some people like but it doesn’t work as a film. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is a shady business manager who is trying to help the rich Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, HORSE FEATHERS) get into high society by donating money to the opera. Meanwhile, Driftwood’s friends Fiorello (Chico Marx) and Tomasso (Harpo Marx) are trying to help their singer friend Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones, A DAY AT THE RACES) get a lead part in the opera company’s performance in New York City. However, the company star Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King, GO WEST) has different ideas, especially when it comes to Ricardo’s girlfriend and female singing star Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle, RADIO DAYS).

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IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993) (****)

The film is loosely based on the true-life story of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis, GANGS OF NEW YORK), an Irish man wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years for an IRA terrorist bombing that he had nothing to do with. The film is a startling case of injustice, fear and racism.

Director Jim Sheridan (IN AMERICA) took some liberties to make his point (he combined multiple people into solo characters, created characters to highlight ideas, changed dates to add drama), but like HURRICANE the end product is too powerful and poignant to make a fuss over the changes. Gerry was a petty thief in Belfast, who crossed the IRA one too many times. His father, a local businessman named Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite, AMISTAD), makes a deal with the IRA and sends his son to London.

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THE LEGEND OF EARTHSEA (2004) (***)

Based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, this Sci Fi Channel miniseries tells the tale of Ged (Shawn Ashmore, X2: X-MEN UNITED), a young man who dreams of becoming a wizard. Ged displays great gifts of wizardry, which attracts the attention of wizard Ogion (Danny Glover, LETHAL WEAPON), who has little patience for the young wanna-be wizard. So Ged heads off to a wizard school where he meets his good friend Vetch (Chris Gauthier, FREDDY VS. JASON) and causes himself a lot of trouble.

In the meantime, Ged dreams of a beautiful priestess named Tenar (Kristin Kreuk, TV’s SMALLVILLE), who trains under the tutelage of High Priestess Thar (Isabella Rossellini, BLUE VELVET). What the priestesses don’t know is that one of their own – Kossil (Jennifer Calvert, THE WAITING ROOM) – has teamed up with the warring King Tygath (Sebastian Roche, 15 MINUTES), who wants to unleash the power of the Nameless Ones to make himself immortal.

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A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) (***)

Director Sam Wood also helmed the Marx Bros. film A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, which came out in 1935. Most of the same cast appeared in both films. OPERA is often listed as the better film, but I think that RACES is a more complete film. As you can see from my three star rating, I don’t find it a classic though.

Groucho, Chico and Harpo are wonderful comedians and performers, but their films are stock comedies, which are relatively just a string of gags. Throughout watching this and OPERA, I kept thinking, “Will future generations view Adam Sandler films as art?” I’m not saying that the Marx Bros. are bad in a Sandler kind of way, but they’re the same culturally. Broad comedy that appeals to the masses, which were very successful.

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A MIGHTY WIND (2003) (***1/2)

Christopher Guest (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) has made a career out on doing mockumentaries. His most recent is probably his most subtle, which makes for bigger laughs when it succeeds. I’ve read a few comments about the film being dull. I think those are the viewers that are not getting the joke. This one is plays it very close to the bone.

The story follows a tribute concert put on after the death of famed folk promoter Irving Steinbloom. His son Jonathan (Bob Balaban, GOSFORD PARK) tries to arrange for three of his father’s favorite groups to perform – The Folksmen, The Main Street Singers and Mitch & Mickey. The Folksmen are comprised of bass player Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer, HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE IN AMERICA), lead singer/guitar player Jerry Palter (Michael McKean, THIS IS SPINAL TAP) and banjo player Alan Barrows (Guest). The humor of their segments comes from their recollections of their heyday and their thoughts on being retro.

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HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) (****)

This is epic filmmaking at its best. Visual stunning. Highly dramatic. Poetically told. Director Yimou Zhang has done it again. Not since… well… Yimou Zhang’s HERO earlier this year has the screen become so fantastical.

Set at the end of the Tang Dynasty, the government has become corrupt and a rebellion has begun. The chief rebels are the House of Flying Daggers, a band of assassins who weld deadly accuracy with knives. Two police deputies Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, RETURNER) and Leo (Andy Lau, 1993’s STREET FIGHTER) suspect that a new blind showgirl Mei (Ziyi Zhang, RUSH HOUR 2) at the brothel may be an assassin. Eventually, Jin poses as a rebel and frees Mei from prison, so that she will lead him to the new leader of the House of Flying Daggers.

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DARK VICTORY (1939) (***)

This film may be the inspiration of every Lifetime “dying woman” chick flick ever made. That doesn’t make this film bad though. You can’t slight something good for the bad things it spawns.

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis, NOW, VOYAGER) is a young socialite, who lives a carefree lifestyle of wealth and privilege. She fills her days with her friends Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald, WUTHERING HEIGHTS) and Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan, KINGS ROW) partying and arguing with her horse trainer Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). She a good-hearted person and brings cheer to any room she enters. But she starts having headaches and vision problems, which led to a riding accident. The handsome Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent, JEZEBEL) operates on her, but learns that he has only alleviated her symptoms, but can do nothing about saving her life. Complicating matters, Judy falls in love with her doctor.

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THE CANDIDATE (1972) (***1/2)

Director Michael Ritchie (DIGGSTOWN) takes a very Robert Altman-approach to this fly-on-the-wall look at a Senatorial campaign. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle, TAXI DRIVER) is a top campaign advisor for the Democratic Party, who convinces civil rights attorney Bill McKay (Robert Redford, THE STING) to run against Republican incumbent senator Crocker J. Jarmon (Don Porter, TV’s GIDGET).

Lucas convinces McKay to run on issues, because Jarmon is a shoo-in to win. McKay takes the bait. We discover that McKay is also the son of a popular former Californian governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas, BEING THERE). Bill McKay is pretty liberal and Jarmon is pretty conservative. Jarmon is a very polished politician while McKay is a bit rough around the edges.

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THE BLOB (1958) (**1/2)

This film sort of defines the image of 1950s B-sci fi/horror flicks. Two teens in love – Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen, BULLITT) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut, TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) – find themselves tormented by a killing machine from space.

In a sense, the filmmakers didn’t take the film all that seriously with the opening title song being a chipper, do-wop song about the Blob. That’s the other thing that drains the film of any real scares – the Blob. It’s a red goo that slowly creeps toward its victims. Surprisingly, the 1988 remake made the red goo seem scary… at least a little bit.

At first, Steve and Jane tell their tale of the Blob to the police who don’t believe them. This doesn’t stop the Blob from consuming very animal in its path. So Steve and Jane round up the teens in town to warn everyone.

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AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003) (***)

Nick Broomfield is a fearless documentarian, who asks the tough questions and puts himself on the line for his work. In 1992, Broomfield made the powerful film AILEEN WUORNOS: THE SELLING OF A SERIAL KILLER, which chronicled how the famed serial killer Aileen Wuornos was used by many people in her life that tried to cash in on her infamy. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER come out to coincide with the release of the fictional version of Wuornos’ story, MONSTER. LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER serves as part sequel- part re-envisioning of the original film.

The new film, which was co-directed by Joan Churchill, recaps the findings of the first film as well as fills us in on what has happened since. The new film recaps Wuornos’ life in brief much like an A&E biography would. The rest of the time the film takes advantage of Wuornos’ trust of Broomfield, giving him exclusive interviews.

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THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) (****)

After only watching 10 minutes of this film, I knew why this film gets a mention in a Quentin Tarantino film. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE creates its characters in iconic fashion and puts them in interesting moral dilemmas. It captures the camaraderie of war as well as its brutality and pointlessness. There's great action, but the clash of the characters' personalities is what creates the thrills.

Commodore Jensen (James Robertson Justice, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) brings together a force of top soldiers to go on a suicide mission to sneak onto the island of Navarone and destroy the two giant guns there that have prevented the Ally warships from rescuing a squad of soldiers stranded on a nearby island. Time is of the essence because the Germans want to draw Turkey into the war and plan to murder the soldiers.

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) (***1/2)

The film gets past its Disney-fied moments with a wonderfully burly performance by Kirk Douglas and the inherent intrigue of the Captain Nemo character. Set in the 19th century, rumors of a giant sea monster wrecking ships are flying fast and furious. Prof. Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas, THE LADY VANISHES) is skeptical, but won’t write off the possibility of a sea monster existing. His dutiful assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre, CASABLANCA) is a little more reluctant to voice his opinion, especially in front of reporters. Ned Land (Douglas) is a veteran whale hunter, who is hired to look for the sea monster. He, however, does not believe in the monster at all.

The three set out to find the monster and what they find is a technologically advanced submarine, helmed by Capt. Nemo (Jason Mason, LOLITA). After Arronax’s ship is sunk by Nemo’s Nautilaus, Nemo takes Arronax, Conseil and Land on board. Nemo’s ethics and lack of faith in humanity disturb Cornseil and Land, but the Prof. falls under the Captain’s spell, intrigued by the science that Nemo has discovered.

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SISTERS (1973) (****)

Forget about DRESSED TO KILL or BODY DOUBLE, SISTERS is Brian DePalma’s masterpiece. It’s more horror than thriller. The film starts with aspiring model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder, SUPERMAN) and newspaperman Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson, TV’s THAT’S MY MOMMA) meeting as contestants on a CANDID CAMERA-type game show. Danielle wins a steak knives set and Woode wins dinner for two at an African theme restaurant. They decide to go to dinner together. At dinner, Danielle’s ex-husband Emil Breton (William Finley, THE FUNHOUSE) shows up. He’s super creepy and starts the strange tone that is veiled over the rest of the film.

The film is filled with a lot of twists and turns throughout. I don’t want to reveal any of the film’s secrets, but I can say there is a vicious murder. Danielle is one of a famous Siamese twin pair with her sister Dominique, who isn’t very nice. Wrapped up in the crime are upcoming, women’s lib reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt, TV’s SOAP), who witnesses the murder, and veteran private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning, TOOTSIE).

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A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964) (****)

The first PINK PANTHER film was good, but uneven. The second is great. It’s one of the most consistently funny films I’ve ever seen. And that is mainly due to the pitch perfect performance from Peter Sellers (BEING THERE) as the determined, but dimwitted detective Jacques Clouseau.

The first film lost focus because it dealt with the David Niven character too much when Sellers was stealing the show. A SHOT IN THE DARK puts Sellers’ Clouseau smack in the center where he belongs. The film starts with an elaborate sequence where various people in a mansion sneak off in the middle of the night to different rooms to have affairs. The sequence ends with a murder. The crime seems pretty much cut and dry with the maid Maria Gambrelli (Elke Sommer, 1979’s THE PRISONER OF ZENDA) discovered with the gun in her hand over the dead body. But with bumbling Clouseau on the case nothing is as easy as it should be. All of this happens to the dismay of police chief Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom, SAPRTACUS).

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LOVE AND DEATH (1975) (***)

Woody Allen makes two kinds of films – relationship comedies and screwball spoofs. I’m a fan of the relationship comedies more than the screwball stuff. Don’t get me wrong I love EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) and ZELIG, but I tend to remember ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS more when I think of Allen’s best work.

This film is a spoof of period pieces like BARRY LYNDON, Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. Allen plays Boris Grushenko, an introspective Russian man, who wants nothing to do with the war against Napoleon. It’s the typical Allen character transported back a few centuries. He’s in love with Sonja (Diane Keaton, SOMETHING GOTTA GIVE), but she doesn’t notice him at all. The film chronicles Boris’ life in the military, his affairs with Countess Alexandrovna (Olga Georges-Picot, GOOD-BYE, EMMANUELLE), his duel with the Countess’ lover Anton Inbedkov (Harold Gould, THE STING), his quick marriage and his involvement in a plot to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan, BACK TO THE FUTURE).

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PITCH BLACK (2000) (***)

This film started out as a throwaway horror/sci-fi flick and has grown into a cult hit. Vin Diesel (XXX) stars as Richard B. Riddick, a savage convict who has the ability to see in pitch back. And that will come in handy.

A spaceship crashes on a deserted planet. Capt. Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell, FINDING NEVERLAND) tries to figure out a way for the survivors to get back home and struggles with the moral decisions she made during the crash. William J. Johns (Cole Hauser, TEARS OF THE SUN) is the bounty hunter that is transporting Riddick. He has a secret he’s keeping from the others and his hatred of Riddick is great. Leading a group of young Muslims to New Mecca is Adbu “Imam” al-Walid (Keith David, PLATOON). There’s also a young orphan named Jack (Rhiana Griffith, TV’s HOME AND AWAY), who grows to idolize Riddick.

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ZHOU YU'S TRAIN (2004) (**)

Unneeded confusion is the best way to describe this film. Set in modern day China, Zhou Yu (Li Gong, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE) falls in love with a poet named Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka Fai, THE BANQUET). She travels a long distance by train two times a week to see him. One day on the train, Zhou Yu meets Zhang Qiang, a veterinarian who tries to persuade her to sell him one of her porcelain bowls, which she is taking to her boyfriend. In an act of defiance and a statement of the withering nature of her romance with Chen Qing, Zhou Yu smashes the bowl.

The film jumps between time frames and between Zhou Yu’s relationships with the moody poet and the jovial vet. Then there’s the film’s other mystery – Li Gong appears with short hair in several scenes without the two men. The structure of the story is confusing and doesn’t allow the film to develop a clear point or focus.

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WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (2004) (***)

This film is a brutally honest look at how couples verbally wound each other when they can’t handle the emotional situation in front of them. Jack (Mark Ruffalo, 13 GOING ON 30) is married to Terry (Laura Dern, BLUE VELVET), a stay-at-home mom who drinks in the middle of the day. Jack is sleeping with his friend Hank’s (Peter Krause, TV’s SIX FEET UNDER) wife Edith (Naomi Watts, 21 GRAMS).

Both Jack and Hank are professors at a small college in Oregon. They’re the type of men that live in their heads all the time. They don’t feel; they analyze. I felt the fact that the two men were awful husbands, but weren’t awful fathers was very honest and interesting. It’s these complex details that amazed me.

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THE TERMINAL (2004) (***1/2)

Steven Spielberg knows how to pick the right stories and tells them well. This film was marketed as a romantic comedy when really the film is much more. It really doesn’t fall into any typical genre category.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) is a citizen of the Eastern European country of Krakozia, who has flown to New York City, but is forced to live in the airport, because his country has been overthrown by a coup thus invalidating his passport. Homeland security official Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci, BIG NIGHT) tries everything in his power to get rid of Navorski, because he doesn’t want to deal with the problem.

The Dixon character is one of the more interesting things about the film, because he’s less of a villain and more of a character study of a mid-level bureaucrat, who follows the rules to the letter, strives for the minor power that he has, but doesn’t really want any responsibility. On the flipside, Navorski works as the perfect foil, because he is patient and sincere. The film takes a fascinating look at how someone with limited means could survive living for nine months in an airport terminal.

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MARIA FULL OF GRACE (2004) (***1/2)

This film follows the drug trade from the human mules point of view. Dealers in places like Colombia pay girls to ingest drugs packaged in latex gloves and smuggle them into the U.S. The drug dealers pay more money than these girls could make in a lifetime. Plus, they get free trips to the U.S. The sales pitch seems so wonderful, but the risks and complications are extremely dangerous.

This film follows how a 17-year-old girl named Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno, first screen performance) becomes a drug smuggler. Maria works as a de-thorner at a flower plantation to help support her family. She resents this greatly because the job is terrible, her boss is uncaring and her older sister Diana (Johanna Andrea Mora, screen debut) has had a baby and doesn’t have to work. Maria has a boyfriend named Juan (Wilson Guerrero, screen debut), who is anything but a great boyfriend.

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I, ROBOT (2004) (***)

Fans of Isaac Asimov’s original book have deemed this film version complete fluff. I have not read the book, so I can’t comment. I feel what was brought to the screen was popcorn entertainment with enough smarts to make me believe I wasn’t being talked down to.

Director Alex Proyas created wonderful visual styles with his films THE CROW and DARK CITY. However, where THE CROW and DARK CITY were very dark and moody, I, ROBOT is very bright and clean. Yet, Proyas evokes the same feelings. The sterile world seems too sterile for its own good. This feeling works right into the motivations of the lead character Del Spooner (Will Smith, INDEPENDENCE DAY), who is very skeptical of robots in general. He is specifically brought onto a case of the apparent suicide of robotics genius Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell, BABE).

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ELF (2003) (***)

ELF is a good family film. It’s not the greatest holiday flick, but it warms the heart nonetheless. The ever-talented Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who as a baby accidentally wanders into Santa’s bag and gets taken to the North Pole. Upon discovering the boy, Santa (Ed Asner, TV’s THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) decides to keep the orphan and allow Papa Elf (Bob Newhart, TV’s NEWHART) to raise him as an elf.

Buddy clearly does not fit in being over six feet tall. At 30, Papa Elf reveals to Buddy that he is indeed a human and that his biological father, Walter (James Caan, THE GODFATHER), lives in New York City, but doesn’t know that Buddy exists. Buddy with his childlike optimism heads off to meet his dad and start a glorious relationship from the moment they meet. But what Buddy discovers is that Walter is “on the bad list.” Eventually Buddy meets his stepmother Emily (Mary Steenburgen, WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?) and stepbrother Michael (Daniel Tay, AMERICAN SPLENDOR). It takes them a little while to warm up to Buddy in his elf clothes, but they soon fall for his charm, as does Gimbel’s employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, THE GOOD GIRL).

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DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004) (***)

Ben Stiller films make me laugh. They don’t talk down to me. They avoid the stupid obvious jokes. They find humor within the story and don’t artificially provide it. They’re entertaining.

This time around Stiller plays White Goodman, the cocky owner of Globo Gym, who wants to buy out Average Joe’s Gym across the street so he can put up a parking lot. Goodman is kind of a jerky version of Stiller’s Zoolander character. Average Joe’s owner Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn, SWINGERS) is a nice, witty slacker, who hasn’t paid his bills in months. The bank sends in Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor, ZOOLANDER) to work out the financial problems and foreclosure by Goodman. Without $50,000, the gym will go under.

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COLLATERAL (2004) (****)

A Michael Mann film is usually always a treat. COLLATERAL is not a let down. It works both as an actioner and as a character study.

Max (Jamie Foxx, RAY) is a cab driver in L.A. He picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise, MAGNOLIA), who offers him $600 dollars for the whole night if he drives him to five locations. After the first appointment ends in a man falling onto the roof of Max’s cab, the film kicks into high gear.

The film deftly balances between action sequences and character building moments. Max has been a cabbie for 12 years as he nitpicks over the details of setting up his own limo service. He’s a neat freak, meticulous and doesn’t take risks too often. Vincent couldn’t be anymore different. He’s a great risk taker and has philosophically come to terms with his occupation as a hired killer. The world doesn’t care about him, so he doesn’t care about the world.

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THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004) (***)

Low-budget horror/sci-fi flick PITCH BLACK has become a cult hit and helped propel star Vin Diesel into stardom. Capitalizing on the success of the first film, director David Twohy was allowed to make a sequel with greatly expanded resources.

The murderous convict Riddick (Diesel) is still running from bounty hunters. He gets a bit ticked off when he discovers that the newest bounty on his head comes from one of the people he saved in the first film – Imam (Keith David, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY). The night-visioned killer comes to discover that Imam’s planet is under attack from a violent cult called The Necromongers, which are led by Lord Marshal (Colm Feore, CHICAGO). Riddick becomes a reluctant hero, especially when he learns of the murderous track the young girl (Alexa Davalos, AND STARRING PANCHO VILLA AS HIMSELF) he saved in the first film has taken.

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