The London Film Festival 2014 Part 1: Mainstream

The London Film Festival 2014 The London Film Festival 2014 has come and gone, and once again, Helen M Jerome has been watching many a movie, and now brings you the first of three parts of her look back at the festival, starting with the more mainstream offerings.

What a tremendously diverse 58th London Film Festival we’ve just been treated to. Okay, so maybe 2014 didn’t have the massive movies like last year’s Gravity and Twelve Years A Slave. And it wasn’t bookended by a pair of Tom Hanks’ vehicles. Yet it had breadth and depth all over; you just had to look a bit further to find it, in dynamic debuts, in dark dramas, even in off-the-wall comedies.

When you consider that some of the films at last year’s festival are only just being released, like Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, then you begin to appreciate how far ahead of the game you can get by devouring the festival fare on offer. So without further ado, let’s get stuck in.

We are dividing our coverage into the customary three parts, with Part One (i.e. this bit) taking in the bigger and smaller movies from the US, UK and Australia. Basically if it’s in the English language, it’s here. Then the forthcoming parts will deal with everything else. So Part Two will look at all the other wonderful, subtitled films from across the world. And in Part Three we’ll announce our annual, highly covetable and completely virtual DVD Fever Awards, as well as rounding up the best documentaries.

furyThe festival frequently opens with an all-guns-blazing blockbuster. But this time it was the turn of a much quieter, but more lingering World War II drama, THE IMITATION GAME (above-right). Back in the day, this might have been an Ealing Studios production, with a young Alec Guinness or Alistair Sim taking the lead. But now their modern-day equivalent, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Alan Turing, all cheekbones, parting and on the spectrum, with Keira Knightley as his equal, but not-really-love-interest. And it’s meticulously directed by Morten Tyldum, who previously made Headhunters, DVDfever’s favourite thriller of 2011. The true story of a misunderstood boffin who becomes a war hero by being persistent and thinking differently to crack the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park, Graham Moore’s screenplay was the hottest property around a couple of years back, according to Hollywood’s Black List.

The tale is given yet more depth and context by flipping back to Turing’s bullied boyhood, and then forward to his post-war arrest, which shows how cruelly he was treated, despite the best endeavours of copper Rory Kinnear. In fact, the entire cast is superb, with special mentions for the stiff-upper-lip acting of both Charles Dance and Mark Strong as Turing’s flawed bosses. Earnest puzzle solving becomes a matter of life and death in the bloody urgency of war, as the casualties mount up, yet personal sacrifices have to be made for the greater cause, leading to much soul searching. And Cumberbatch is perfect as the outsider who also thinks outside the box.

In terms of era, there’s no shift at all for the closing film, FURY (right), written and directed by David Ayer, and starring a grizzled Brad Pitt and his battered Sherman tank. For this is set in the dog days of World War II, behind enemy lines, when troops are worn thin, and everyone anticipates an end to hostilities. Much of the action is filmed within the confines of the tank, in a claustrophobic style reminiscent of Das Boot. And when they face their final assault, surrounded on all sides, last tank standing, the inevitable comparison is with The Alamo, but with CGI gunfire effects.

It’s a vision of hell, drenched in mud and blood, with tight-knit buddies drawing closer, even absorbing a rookie team member into their tank in the shape of Norman (the excellent Logan Lerman) who becomes their moral conscience. Pitt gives it his all as their sergeant; Shia LeBeouf, as usual, spends time blinking back tears, and Michael Pena (from previous festival favourite End of Watch, also by David Ayer) is on fine form. And there are decent supporting roles for Jason Isaacs and Anamaria Marinca. But the main problem is the clunky script. There are lots of biblical utterances, and its pithy platitudes like “Ideas are peaceful; history is violent” feel out of place. Full of sound and fury, but signifying not quite the sum of those parts.

mr-turnerNow for the real festival treats: two of my favourite mainstream movies, and one unlikely, but must-see oddity.

MR TURNER (right) is the story of one of Britain’s best artists, JMW Turner, played by one of Britain’s best actors, Timothy Spall, and made by one of Britain’s best directors, Mike Leigh. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this combination should add up to an almost certain artistic triumph. But what perhaps surprises more is how funny, warm, inspiring and glorious this film is, and how, flaws and all, it leads to a fuller appreciation of Turner’s greatness in the last part of his life. As you’d expect from Leigh, he presents a palette of senses, colours and emotions, not to mention mutton chops and pigs cheeks. Spall’s Turner converses abruptly, often snorting and grunting, or enduring stilted conversations in withdrawing rooms, yet his curiosity and love of language are clear.

Light dominates every scene, its presence and absence, and Turner is always drawn back to the sea. He dips his toe into the scientific world, notably quizzing Lesley Manville’s Mary Somerville, but he also happily uses prostitutes as models and casually ruts with his devoted maid (Dorothy Atkinson), who steals every single scene she’s in. He feels the loss of his dear devoted daddy (Paul Jesson) deeply, with his grief simmering just below the surface, yet he cruelly neglects and abandons his own offspring. He teases his artistic rival Constable (James Fleet) at the Royal Academy, and performs for an audience there by spitting and daubing on his canvas. Poignantly he anticipates the end of his profession not only when he gets a daguerreotype photograph made, and when Queen Victoria turns against him, but also when he sees the Pre-Raphaelites start to dominate the art world. So it’s a relief when he seems to finally find happiness in the arms of a widow in Margate. You’d be mad to miss this, but madder still if you don’t see it in its full glory on the big screen. Plaudits (and more awards please) to Messrs Spall, Leigh – and Turner.

WHIPLASH is a dizzying whirlwind of a movie that’s also about the arts. Superficially about a music student and his conductor, it’s really about isolation and teamwork, dysfunctional relationships, unbelievable highs and devastating lows. It’s about creation, fear, systematic bullying, mental and physical abuse, as gifted drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) pushes himself to the limit to please the leader of jazz academy orchestra, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), with both delivering career-best performances. Based on first-time director Damien Chavelle’s own experiences as a drumming student, this evolved from yet another screenplay that appeared on Hollywood’s Black List.

Shot and edited like a sports movie, we see Andrew train like a boxer, his hands patched up and bleeding all over his drum kit, getting his highs from listening to Buddy Rich CDs and occasional trips to the movies with his laidback dad. Meanwhile Fletcher gets off on getting in the faces of his student musicians, delivering tirades of foul-mouthed, sexist, sizeist, homophobic, racist abuse, and scaring the bejaysus out of each and every one of them – just like the sergeant major in every military movie. It ends up as a battle of single-minded egos, with Andrew and Fletcher pushing themselves to the brink, and becomes a mixture of Black Swan and Rocky, as we see the drummer get wicked. Oh, and it has a dynamite jazz soundtrack. On no account should you miss this extraordinarily exhilarating movie experience.

foxcatcher2Also boasting a terrific soundtrack – from Faris Badwan of The Horrors and Rachel Zeffira, aka Cat’s Eyes – is the surprisingly funny THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, from director Peter Strickland. Deservedly in the festival’s official competition shortlist, this almost defies description. Set in an unnamed country peopled almost exclusively by females, in an unspecified time that’s filmed in 1970s style, it focuses on the oppressively close relationship between two women. Cynthia is portrayed with relish and expert comic timing by Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for running Denmark in the brilliant series Borgen; her lover Evelyn is delicately played by Chiara D’Anna. As the drama unfolds, we see that they have an arrangement that involves sado-masochistic role-playing in every aspect of their daily lives, from Evelyn’s repetitive housework to Cynthia’s restrictive wardrobe and lectures on entomology. But is Cynthia being cruel to be kind? And in their make-believe world of suppressed emotions and outward cruelty, which woman is really dominating? Best thing to do is just sit back and relish this darkly comic and beautifully shot drama.

Sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. And that’s the case with FOXCATCHER (above right), directed by Bennett Miller, who previously helmed true stories in Capote and Moneyball. Initially this is a drama about a rich philanthropist who wants to help the US wrestling team achieve gold in the upcoming Seoul Olympics. The first part of the film is framed as hagiography, with Steve Carell playing John Du Pont as an altruistic and generous sponsor, with Channing Tatum as the grateful grappler Mark Shultz. They bond quickly, with John living in the shadow of his horse-mad mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and Mark living in the shadow of his good-natured brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). But then it gets dark. Really dark. Tatum is excellent as the washed-up sportsman, all delicate gait and musclebound body, with punishing routine and junkfood diet. Ruffalo is the bouncy, moral core, seeing the best in everyone and always putting his wife (Sienna Miller) and family first. Carell is a revelation, unrecognisable with prosthetic nose and drawling speech, flattened by his own underachievement, driven by wanting to please his mother, and fuelled by massive cocaine consumption. And once he gets his hooks into the Shultz brothers, it’s almost impossible for them to escape.

One of the breakthrough stars of this festival is Danish actress Alice Wikander, who carries the British biopic, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, and co-stars in Aussie thriller SON OF A GUN. With perfect RP English, stiff upper lip and topnotch millinery, Wikander plays Vera Brittain, writer of the classic World War I autobiography, Testament of Youth. Her pragmatic parents, played by Dominic West and Emily Watson, would rather she didn’t go to Oxford and become a dreaded ‘bluestocking’, but she longs to escape the confines of Buxton, like her beloved brother, Edward (Taron Egerton). What complicates her fledgling freedom is first falling in love with Edward’s friend, Roland (Kit Harington), then the outbreak of war, and both young men quickly signing up to go to the front. So, despite having started Oxford, Vera feels she must do her bit and serve as a nurse, soon up to her elbows in guts and grieving, as one by one she loses everyone she cares about. As you’d expect, Wikander is supported by stalwart British actors including Miranda Richardson as her Oxford tutor, and Hayley Atwell as her nursing senior. The only false note comes with some of the dialogue that feels a tad too modern. But director James Kent steers the story with clarity, and allows Vera a ray of hope by hinting at her lifelong relationships with Winifred Holtby and politics.

Go to page 2 for The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, Camp X-Ray and more…

the-drop180In Julius Avery’s debut feature, SON OF A GUN, another Official Best Film contender, Alice Wikander has a completely different, but equally pivotal role as Tasha, a modern Eastern European version of the gangster’s moll. Starting out as a prison drama, and building to a heist thriller, we see the story through the eyes of rookie inmate JR (the superb Brenton Thwaites). His only defence in a prison riddled with abusive, tattooed lifers is his quick thinking, his ability to play chess, and his luck in being taken under the wing of charismatic criminal Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor). When JR is released, he helps Lynch and his cohorts break out, and they become mutually dependent as they carry out an audacious gold robbery. But despite being told she’s “off limits”, JR falls for Tasha and seems to be compromising the gang’s plan with his infatuation in the midst of the villains’ everyday, crunching brutality. From the tight pacing and father-son relationship to the dumb, muscled criminals and masked raid, director Avery wears his Michael Mann influences on his sleeve, and he’s deliberately set it in his homeland of Western Australia and the “cinematic ugliness of Perth”. Only missteps are some of the rather saccharine songs on the soundtrack and the clichés as the film races towards its denouement.

Another European actor coming into his own, Matthias Schoenaerts, features as the dodgy boyfriend in fellow Belgian Michael R Roskam’s dark Brooklyn thriller, THE DROP (above right), and as the celebrated architect and romantic lead in Alan Rickman’s period drama, A LITTLE CHAOS. Based on Dennis Lehane’s short story, Animal Rescue, The Drop drips with menace at every step of its twisting, turning plot. Schoenaerts, previously best known for Rust And Bone, plays lowlife hustler Eric Deeds, who is the catalyst for much of the action after he dumps his own pitbull puppy in the trash, then comes back to reclaim it. Tom Hardy, who was sensational in last year’s festival hit, Locke, plays Bob, a slow-talking bartender, minding his own business and keeping his nose clean, until he finds and adopts the dog, with help from Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who is Deeds’ abused ex-girlfriend. Above them all is Bob’s boss and cousin, Marv, effortlessly portrayed by the late, great James Gandolfini. Marv has his hands in many pies and the till, and is cruising for a fall when he seems implicated in a stick-up at his own bar. His nihilistic attitude is summed up with his line: “We’re dead already; we’re just still walking around.” Throw in some ruthless Chechens who want their money back, a cop Bob knows from his local Catholic church, and the massive bar takings from the Super Bowl weekend, and you have the ingredients for a dog-eat-dog climax – but who is really the top dog? Worth seeing for all four actors, but especially Hardy and Gandolfini.

the-disappearance-of-eleanor-rigbyWho would have thought that a 17th Century period drama about gardening could be such fun-filled romp? A LITTLE CHAOS stars Kate Winslet as landscape gardener Sabine de Barra, who is employed by doe-eyed Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to bring her wild vision to create a magical, outdoor ballroom in the formal gardens at Versailles. She is recently widowed, he is in a loveless open marriage, and their budding mutual attraction seems inevitable. There are setbacks, but romance eventually blooms in the free and easy court setting, and the under the watchful eye of the flirtatious Sun King himself, portrayed with relish by director Alan Rickman. Everyone seems to be having fun playing his camp followers, but Stanley Tucci stands out in the role of Louis’ brother.

Period drama doesn’t always work though, especially when it’s burdened with the great expectations of adapting a bona fide classic. MADAME BOVARY, directed by Sophie Barthes, must have started with good intentions, but soon turns into a slightly dreary story of a winsome, buttoned-up, bored housewife, surrounded by actors with a muddle of accents. Mia Wasikowska plays the title role with transatlantic tones, Henry Lloyd-Hughes boldly gives her French rural doctor husband a French accent, Rhys Ifans plays the local tradesman as Welsh, and Ezra Miller portrays her love interest, Dupuis, as a preppy American. And Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti. Disappointingly this is a paint-by-numbers costume drama for Twilight fans.

The high-concept structure of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (above right), starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, is hugely appealing. Shot first by Ned Benson in two completely separate parts, one from his point of view, one from hers, the film show at the festival is yet another version: Them, combining parts of the previous films, and supplementing this with new material. Without seeing its predecessors, the viewer is floundering in a patchwork of periods and viewpoints, trying to make sense of fragments of their lives together and apart. Both actors give their best, Chastain all gaunt recklessness and frailty, McAvoy all potency and indecision, but you sense a sadness still suffuses their attempts to move on. They flicker and bicker, surrounded by a quality supporting cast that includes Ciaran Hinds and William Hurt as their respective fathers. But without the other parts of the trilogy, this is hard to make sense of.

Go to page 3 for Camp X-Ray, My Old Lady and more…

my-old-ladyWritten and directed by Peter Sattler as a single location movie that homes in on a pivotal relationship between prisoner and guard, CAMP X-RAY sounds like well-trodden dramatic territory. That is until you realise that the guard is an all-American female soldier and her Muslim prisoner is held at Guantanamo Bay, or Gitmo. Kristen Stewart is perfect as the newbie who also guards and controls her own emotions, much as she pulls her hair tightly into a bun. And Peyman Maadi (from A Separation) is alternately sympathetic and demanding as the detainee who says he just wants the final Harry Potter book from the prison library cart, but really wants some human interaction. As they both feel increasingly isolated in their surroundings and ostracised by their fellow men, they start to open up. And as we witness the dehumanising effect of the situation on the guards as well as the inmates, the film perhaps raises important philosophical questions about such institutions.

We at DVDfever pride ourselves on hunting down any festival appearances by Kristin Scott Thomas, so catching KST in MY OLD LADY (above right) was compulsory. Directed by 75-year-old newcomer Israel Horowitz, and based on his own play, this is a neatly structured three-hander. Kevin Kline is the naïve, impecunious American who believes he has inherited a fabulous old property in the heart of Paris, which he plans to sell immediately. But residing there is Maggie Smith, playing a 92-year-old who can continue to live there under French law – in their unique estate arrangement known as viager – until her death.

To complicate matters, her fiercely protective, frosty daughter, KST, is also in residence. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems that Kline’s late father had an affair with Smith. Despite their initial differences, Kline and KST find common ground and growing attraction, once they recognise their similar, emotionally damaged lives. But all the best lines, as you’d expect, are brusquely delivered by Smith, saying: “I’m 90; subtlety has no interest to me,” and telling recovering alcoholic Kline that the key to long life is “precision and wine.” Catch this for the strong central trio and for a film that seamlessly moves from comedy to love story to poignant drama.

(DVDfever Editor Dom Robinson adds: I think the gorgeous Kristin Scott Thomas would make a perfect ‘mother’ in a movie role to Scarlett Alice Johnson, best known for BBC3’s superb sitcom Pramface. Will a director out there please make this happen!)

catch-me-daddyThose of a nervous disposition should probably steer clear of Yorkshire drama, CATCH ME DADDY (right), a debut film written and directed by the Wolfe brothers, Daniel and Matthew. There are elements of Romeo and Juliet in its star-crossed teenage lovers, and Wuthering Heights in its bleak Yorkshire setting, plus it employs the same cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, used by Andrea Arnold for her recent version of the Bronte classic. British Pakistani girl Laila and her Scottish boyfriend Aaron are hiding out in an austere chalet, up above the town, getting high, eating junk, and dancing for each other. Meanwhile Laila’s strict family are on her trail, tracking her down with help from local thugs, wielding an unpleasant array of weaponry and fully prepared to wreak havoc to bring her home. Increasingly brutal as it hurtles towards tragedy, this remarkably dark film was shortlisted in the festival’s First Feature Competition, and ended up deservedly winning Best British Newcomer for its star, Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, who plays Laila. Could the Wolfe brothers become our own homegrown Coens?

Anyone who has followed Morgan Matthews’ peerless career as a passionate documentary maker will have approached his dramatic feature debut, X+Y with high expectation tempered with trepidation. But Matthews gives himself a head start by basing this loosely on his own documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, which recorded a group of students heading off to the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO). And as added security he casts Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins in the main adult roles of Nathan’s teacher and widowed mother, actors who know each other well from their long run in Nick Payne’s West End hit play, Constellations. Nathan is the crucial character here though, a teenage maths boffin with autism, played by Hugo star Asa Butterfield, who finds everything around him startling, and is only just beginning to use his considerable gifts. And I have to admit to shedding the odd tear while watching. Bring on Matthews’ next feature!

There’s another promising British debut from a very different background in the shape of SECOND COMING, from established stage and TV writer-director, Debbie Tucker Green, which was also shortlisted for Best Debut Feature. Set in London and boasting strong performances from Idris Elba as hard-working husband, Mark, and Kai Francis-Lewis as his inquisitive son JJ, this is definitely Nadine Marshall’s film, playing wife and mother, Jackie. Kitchen sink domestic bliss turns to discord when Jackie falls pregnant, and realises that it can’t be Mark’s – even though she’s slept with no-one else. Family and friends have different reactions, and Jackie is pushed to the very edge, haunted by previous miscarriages and vivid dreams of water pouring down on her. As her nightly visions pile up, and her men tend a bird with a broken wing, she gets closer to snapping herself. A bold and imaginative debut.

Feeling like a gritty documentary, Simon Baker’s debut drama NIGHT BUS was shot over seven nights in the East End. The nighttime sheen, rain-slicked streets and overlit seedy glamour of London help give the film its gritty character, as characters improvise dialogue as they come and go on the bemused driver’s bus. Variously intimate, aggressive, businesslike, funny, tender, petty, flirtatious and drunk, they show that all life is here.

Go to page 4 for Men Women and Children, Ping Pong Summer and more…

men-women-and-childrenAs a fan of Jason Reitman’s previous work, from Juno to Labor Day, I was already predisposed to MEN WOMEN AND CHILDREN (right), but more so when learning that its subject is our ever-present online world, and that the knowing narration is by our own national treasure, Emma Thompson. Reitman says he’d been a fan of writer Chad Kultgen since his debut, and got ahead of the game by reading his novel, Men Women and Children before it was published. Stylistically Reitman has chosen to mimic what we see in dramas like Sherlock, where every text message, tweet, status update, email or website pops up as characters compose, delete, send and read them, even while they walk or eat. In a world of competitive teens and parents, Reitman focuses on three families, with mums and dads variously laidback, overprotective and hypocritical about their offspring’s online activities. Porn-addiction, pro-anorexia websites, jock culture, casual hookups and virtual worlds ensure that everyone is desensitised, numb to genuine interaction until two teens fall in love and decide to go their own way. Reitman coaxes terrific performances from a strong ensemble cast including bearded Adam Sandler, fresh-faced Ansel Elgort (Fault in our Stars), and Jennifer Garner. No doubt you’ll be texting your friends about this while watching.

Fish-out-of-water opposites attract in Jen McGowan’s comedy-drama KELLY AND CAL, which marks a comeback for Juliette Lewis as bored, lonely housewife Kelly, struggling with postnatal depression and a constantly crying baby, while her husband works longer and longer hours. When she is accosted by young neighbour Cal, she doesn’t realise that he’s wheelchair-bound, and is initially mortified, then intrigued by him. He’s had a promising athletic career cut short by an accident. She looks back on her misspent youth as a bass player in a 90s girl group. Neither belong, and they become rebels together, in spite of the disapproval of almost everyone, including her mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd on top form). As Cal’s admiration turns to love, you wonder if a happy ending is possible for either of them?

LAND HO! Is a warm comedy, co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, and featuring two main characters, outrageously outspoken retiree Mitch and his one-time brother-in-law, Colin. To pull themselves out of a slump, Mitch buys them two first class tickets to Iceland, which is where the action takes place. They drive around the stunning landscape, encountering hot springs, extraordinary food, massive waterfalls, friendly natives, geysers, and beaches of volcanic rock, renting a huge car and attempting to get their groove back. Think The Trip with gnarlier guys in colder weather. Made on a miniscule budget, using AirB&B for rural accommodation, this road movie shows that you can still produce something with older, unknown actors, yet wide appeal.

ping-pong-summerWho could have predicted that one of the funniest comedies of the festival would feature table tennis and the early days of hiphop? PING PONG SUMMER takes director Michael Tully back to his youth, and specifically to Ocean City, Maryland where he holidayed with his parents every single summer. And he’s packed this nostalgia-fest with souvenirs of his own mid-eighties experience, from crazy golf and seafood buffets, to arcades and the boardwalk, all accompanied by a fabulous soundtrack. The story focuses on awkward 13-year-old Rad (newcomer Marcello Conte), who is rightly mortified by his uncool parents (John Hannah and Lea Thompson), while his goth sister barely speaks to anyone.

He makes a new, eternally upbeat, best friend Teddy, takes a shine to local girl Stacy, and it all goes a bit Scooby Doo when they’re picked on by local bullies and warned off speaking to the spooky neighbourhood oddball, Susan Sarandon. Rad is fairly hopeless at playing ping pong, but nevertheless takes up bully Lyle’s challenge of a crunch match. It all looks hopeless until he starts to train with help from Sarandon (who is a genuine table tennis nutter in real life). But will Rad get the girl? Main thing is not to take this too seriously, folks. Just immerse yourself in the totally rad world that Tully has created, and enjoy.

Best comedy of the festival has to be Justin Simien’s debut, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, a sharp satire which has already scooped the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Set in an Ivy League college, this positively bristles with fabulous performances and witty dialogue, as every character seeks to affirm their own identity, either by winning elections, writing piercing columns, throwing memorable parties, controversial vlogging, or just having extraordinary hair.

Blackness is the hot topic for students of all colours, as black culture becomes commodified and appropriated, with individuals categorised as “whiter than Michael Jackson’s baby” or only “technically black”, and ashamed to admit that they like “Mumford & Sons and Robert Altman movies”. And there’s genuine horror and a virtual riot when white students see nothing wrong in holding a crass “blackface” party at Halloween. Just as entertaining, yet more knowing than Spike Lee’s early work, this is a confident first film that blows a hole in political correctness and should accelerate the careers of a few actors (Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P Bell) along with Simien’s own.

COMING SOON: Part Two of The London Film Festival 2014 review includes all the best from the rest of the world…

Check out the BFI London Film Festival 2014 website here.


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