Tag Archives: Gillian Anderson

“Hannibal” Season 3 was a Kafkaesque, blood-soaked passion play with psychedelic music and 70’s-tastic visual flourishes.

I think that it’s tremendously difficult to write a spoiler-free review of the third and final season of “Hannibal.”  (No, I am no longer hopeful that the show might return via a different network or an Internet-based provider.)  But I need to try to keep this review spoiler free … this really is a suspense thriller and, indeed, the second season ended in cliffhanger after which viewers were unaware of even which major characters survived.  So … this will be pretty vaguely worded and a little tough to write.

I loved Season 3; anyone reading this blog could have guessed that, given that I’ve visibly been such a rabid fan of the program.  I do think that it was the best show on television, and it easily beat out “The Walking Dead,” “Daredevil,” “Family Guy” and “The Strain” as my favorite.  When it was good (which was most of the time) it was simply incredible.  When I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did past seasons, it was because of deliberate creative and stylistic choices, my reaction to which I’m sure are mostly subjective.  There were things I loved and things I didn’t love.  All things considered, however, the shameless fanboy in me won out over the critic.  I’d rate this season at a 9 out of 10.

First, here’s what I loved.  The script, directing, acting, sets and musical score were as strong as ever.  For a show that sometimes really struggled with dialogue in its first season, the writing in Season 3 was fantastic.  I am referring to the story, characterization and dialogue across the board, but especially the key interchanges between characters: our main protagonist facing off against Hannibal Lecter, Bedelia du Maurier, and Rinaldo Pazzi.  The performances here were simply fantastic, especially considering the complex, nuanced, but also mysterious characters the show’s writers have skillfully developed.  Our surviving heroes were played with extraordinary skill.

Mads Mikkelsen was also predictably perfect, even given that Season 3 required a broader range, as Hannibal’s past and his adversaries humanized him this season in a manner we haven’t seen before.  The script finally allowed Gillian Anderson to be a less stoical — her later monologue concerning a wounded bird was stunning.  And the surprise standout here was Fortunato Cerlino as Pazzi — this secondary character could have been a one-note buffoon, but Cerlino and the writers turned him into such a “real” (and extremely interesting) character that I actually thought the show would depart from the source material and make him a hero of the story.

Scenes between certain survivors of the Baltimore massacre also beg for specific mention, but I just can’t do that without revealing who lived through it.  The actors playing those “good guys” who are still alive did great jobs.  (More on why that term is in quotation marks just a little later.)  And they generally had well written character arcs.  One character’s agenda at the beginning of Season 3 was actually genuinely touching, considering how ruthless this story’s characters typically are.  (He or she arrives in Florence, where Hannibal has secreted awayy, merely to safeguard another.)  Far more touching is the exposition of one character who did not survive Baltimore; it surprises the viewer with astonishing sadness.

Bear in mind — I obviously loved the dialogue, but, like the show, it actually won’t be to everybody’s taste.  (No, for once that is not a deliberate pun.)  It is overly stylized, and rarely naturalistic.  This isn’t an extremely well scripted show in the manner of those like “M*A*S*H,” “LOST,” or “The West Wing,” and it isn’t a sit-com.  Our heroes and villains often just really don’t sound like real people.  It takes a greater degree of willing suspension of disbelief just to accept them.  Yes, I was a nut for this TV show.  But if somebody told me that they didn’t like it simply because the characters “talk funny,” I’d really understand that.  I personally loved it, because a universe where super-smart criminals and investigators are squaring off against each other, and verbally ribbing their opponents to psychologically undermine them (when they’re not getting all stabbity-stabbity, taht is), appeals to me.  Given the anti-intellectualism I’ve seen a lot in our culture, it’s refreshing to see an unabashedly intellectual TV show, with powerful characters, both good and bad, who are educated and beautifully articulate.

And … if you’re a horror hound, as I am?  The show delivers.  Season 3 was the most macabre.  And with the introduction of the “Red Dragon” storyline, it became the most brutally violent.  Generally, we no longer see the aftermath of gory murders, but see them in action.  Remember a key scene near the end of Season 2, when the mutilation of a major character is understated, because he is seen mostly in shadow?  That … kinda wasn’t a thing in Season 3.  And it was frightening.  A certain switcheroo the show pulled toward the end of the Mason Verger storyline was gut wrenching, really.

This show was brilliant, making its departure all the more bittersweet.

As for what I didn’t love?  These were intentional changes and creative risks that might appeal just fine to another viewer.  And showrunner Bryan Fuller actually advertised them in advance.  He promised fans that the show would be far more surreal and would farther push the boundaries.

I have no doubt that many fans loved what he did.  But considering Season 3 in its entirety, I’d rather he simply followed the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  For me, Season 2 was perfect, and these bold changes had slightly less satisfying results.

For me, the show became too surreal beginning it its second act, the Mason Verger storyline.  Yes, the most striking images and sequences of the prior seasons were the surreal visions, dreams and thematic visuals.  But these worked, in part, because of their stark contrast with the “real world.”  They were one of the best parts of the show.  But I didn’t want to see the entire program become something akin to a Terry Gilliam movie.  I first got acquainted with Thomas Harris’ source novels with “The Silence of the Lambs” (both the book and the film) in 1991.  That was a kind of “real world” police procedural, albeit with a principal villain that seemed larger than life.  (For moviegoers, whether Lecter or Jame Gumb was the story’s main antagonist depends largely on your personal interpretation.)

A police thriller was Harris’ intention for most of his books, I think, with the only possible exception being 2000’s novel, “Hannibal,” with its lamentable, nutty ending.  (I and other readers wanted to tear out the final pages of that book after we read it.)  Harris examined criminal psychology and behavioral profiling in some of the same manner that Tom Clancy examined military technology and intelligence-gathering.

Yes, it’s amazing what Fuller was able to explore and accomplish with his departure from Harris’ books in the first two seasons.  And horror-thriller fans really didn’t need another cop show.  (The first half of Season 1 maybe relied a little too heavily on standard cops and robbers, and the seemingly perpetual stalemate between an anonymous villain and the good guys.)  But, for me, the Mason Verger story arc was rendered in a style that was just too … far out.  All those red visuals and baldfaced gore and references to inevitable death!  It seemed like something penned by Franz Kafka, by Clive Barker, or maybe by Edgar Allan Poe on acid.  A plot point involving livestock was just … too weird for me.  I immediately was taken out of the story when I stopped to wonder whether such a freaky thing was even medically possible.

None of those things are bad (except for maybe the acid).  But none of them are Thomas Harris either.  None of them are “Hannibal,” for me, anyway.  For an absolutely perfect treatment of the Mason Verger storyline, please see Ridley Scott’s 2000 film adaptation of the book.  It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and I enjoy it far more than “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).  I find these characters so compelling that I want them to be real (or … y’know, at least the good guys, anyway).  But for that to happen, they have to inhabit the real world, not some blood-soaked passion play with psychedelic music and 70’s-tastic visual flourishes.

As far as tone and content … I can’t believe I am actually writing this, but Season 3 might have gone too far for my tastes.  Do you remember the death of a key investigator in Season 2?  With the crime scene being the observatory?  That was gruesome enough for a major protagonist with whom the viewer is asked to identify.  Yes, as a horror movie fan, I’ve seen countless zombie and slasher films, but those stories’ victims are often throwaway characters with whom we spend only the running time of a feature film.  This is a not-quite-primetime television show with characters we visit every week.  The gory victimization here, for me, was just too much.  Those who’ve seen Season 3 know I’m talking about one assailed character in particular.  I’m also referring to another scene in which one character’s face was peeled off in closeup.   I cringed.  The movies managed to scare us without this stuff.  If I’d wanted a “Hellraiser” movie, I’d have watched a “Hellraiser” movie.  (See my disclaimer above … again, this is all purely subjective.)

The protagonists themselves became too dark for me.  Yes, I know an ongoing theme here is that everyone under “the devil’s” influence is corrupted by him.  But … my favorite TV show suddenly began to seem like a story with no good guys.  Remember “The Silence of the Lambs?”  Much of its emotional resonance resulted from Clarice Starling, who retained her innocence and nobility despite the horrors she’d faced, including her incidental, bizarre kind of intimacy with the caged Lecter.

We don’t have that here.  We’ve got moral ambiguity, and character complexity that makes for great storytelling.  But do we have a clear hero to root for?  Often, no.  One character distinguishes him- or herself by being morally heroic in the season’s first act … only to commit the same ethical mistake as in past seasons in the third act.  One character (who I liked a hell of a lot in the prior seasons) went so “dark” that he or she was unrecognizable.  And the script did little too support this character change, beyond the obvious fact that he or she was traumatized and was affected neurologically as well.  (Bone marrow in a person’s blood can do that?)  Margot Verger was great in the past as a righteous victim; here she seemed like a compliant turncoat.  As far as I can tell, the only remaining characters who are unambiguously “good guys” are Jimmy and Brian, the goofy lab techs who appear only seldom for necessary exposition and rare comic relief.

The bad guys, too, seemed different.  Mason Verger is played by a quite capable, but very different, actor.  He seems far more controlled and intelligent in Season 3, and the unfortunate result is that he seems to have been replaced.  Actor Michael Pitt brilliantly gave us a manic sexual deviant that was reminiscent of the comics’ incarnation of The Joker.  Joe Anderson’s calmer Verger seems like … his Dad, maybe.

I was unhappy with key plot points here and there.  Simply put, more people should have died at the Baltimore massacre at the end of Season 2.  It was great seeing the characters I liked so much return, but it certainly made Hannibal seem like a surprisingly bloodless killer, and temporarily undermined him as a threat.

Hannibal’s major decision at the last supper in Florence is baffling, considering what we’ve seen throughout the length of the show.  Then a crucial intervention here is made by characters who are tertiary and clownish — should those asshats really have been the ones to save the day (even if only temporarily)?  The manner of Hannibal’s arrival at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is unsatisfying, and robs the viewers of an emotional payoff (although it is lampshaded quite cleverly in the final episode).  And Hannibal’s vicious threats in the final episode are too terrifying even for him, given the character’s well established … sense of “decorum.”

Oh, well.  I realize that my criticisms above are detailed.  But it’s only because I loved the show so much — not to mention the universe originally established by Harris in his books.  I have since I was 19.  Starling (who of course hasn’t appeared in Fuller’s universe) is one of my all time favorite heroes.  Think of my nitpicks above as analogous to those of a die-hard Trekkie criticizing stardate continuity errors.  (As bizarre as my own favorite fictional universes may be, Star Trek s an obsession that I will never truly understand).

“Hannibal” still really was the best show on television.  I’m sad to see it go.

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A mixed review of “The X Files,” Season 9.

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.]  Well … it pains me to admit it, but even a diehard fan of “The X Files” has got to admit that its quality waned in the last season of its regular run — 2001’s Season 9 was pretty uneven, with great “monster-of-the-week” episodes and surprisingly disappointing final entries into the show’s over-arching “mythology” episodes.  I’d give this season a 7 out of 10, and that’s from a biased fanboy who loves this show in much the same way that others love Star Wars and Star Trek.  Frankly, I’d recommend that you peruse Wikipedia’s episode list to select the standalone eps so that you can watch only those.  Skip the conspiracy eps entirely — even if you’re a lover of the long running mythology, as I am.  (You’ll only be disappointed.)

Again, a few of the single stories really shined, and weren’t symptomatic of the creative problems that visibly plagued the show near the end of its 90’s era run.  At the top of the list is the outstanding “Release,” in which the murder of John Doggett’s son is resolved.  This episode had everything that made “The X Files” great — good guys, bad guys, and ambiguous guys all working at cross purposes; a tragic mystery; a haunted past; pathos; twists and red herrings; and great emotional interactions among key characters.  Plus … wrath and gunshots. Damn cool.

“Release” also highlighted Cary Elwes’ wonderful talent.  What a great, darkly ambiguous character he made Brad Follmer.  I liked him far better in this role than his comic caricature in “The Princess Bride” (1987) or his traumatized victim in the “Saw” movies.  This show could have taken on great new directions if it had emphasized the triangle among Doggett, Monica Reyes and Follmer, instead of belaboring past stories so much to retain fans of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Other episodes shined as well.  “4D” and “Audrey Pauley” were like great episodes of the classic “The Outer Limits” (1963).  “Audrey Pauley” benefited from a fantastic actress (Tracey Ellis) in the title role.  “Hellbound” frighteningly pushed the limits of gore and shock-horror.  And “John Doe” was a pretty decent old-fashioned Hitchcock-type crime tale.

Let’s … just not dwell on “Improbable,” the utterly stupid … “numerology episode.”  They bagged an amazing guest actor like the iconic Burt Reynolds and subjected him to this?!  If anyone can tell me the significance of those two unidentified Italian men crooning in the episode’s coda, I’d be eternally grateful.

The mythology episodes … sigh.  They failed to please.  I know that many fans point to David Duchovny’s absence as the reason, but I disagree.  This is the story of a decades-old, global, inter-planetary conspiracy.  It isn’t just one man’s story, and we’d followed Fox Mulder’s quest for the prior eight years.  We can have a coherent and logical continuation of the story without him.  And the writers and actors of “The X Files” did just fine in introducing more crusaders that we care about — two great characters in the form of Doggett and Reyes.  Robert Patrick was terrific; Annabeth Gish wasn’t perfect, but had room to grow, as Gillian Anderson did in the early years.  And of course Anderson’s immense talents still made Scully a perfect heroine.  You know what would have been a daring creative decision?  Martyring Mulder to motivate the survivors.  (Duchovny wanted to leave anyway, didn’t he?)

For me, two other problems were responsible for the show’s decline.  The first was structure, and the second was the redundancies with past seasons.  Season 9 was all over the place — at this point, I’d bet the viewers had largely lost hope that the show’s long-running mysteries would be resolved.  Subplots were raised and dropped with little impact; the episodes concerning baby “William” were maudlin and tiresome.  The season moved forward with minimal clues and exposition.  Its penultimate episode, “Sunshine Days,” was … a mythology episode?  Or not?  I’m not sure — we have a new superpowered character whose unique gifts might be “the answer to everything.”  Well … that’s pretty much the same plot point with which we left off with Gibson Praise in a prior season.  It was a nebulous plot point that wasn’t well supported in the script then, and it’s even less believable now.  And the final episode was a cobbled together rush job, in which past guest stars cameoed in a literal trial for Mulder.  (Admittedly, I, for one, thought Chris Carter did a decent job of wrapping up pre-existing story arcs.)  The we leave off with a kind of … distant-future cliffhanger … which was subsequently unaddressed by the second feature film in 2008.

But the recycled story arcs were worse.  Instead of a conspiracy, we have “a new conspiracy.” Instead of superpowered Alien Bounty Hunters with a little known Achilles’ heel, we have … “super-soldiers” with a little known Achilles’ heel. (And this silly story device seems like something out of the old “Roadrunner” cartoons.)  Instead of a credulous guy and a skeptical lady, we have a credulous lady and a skeptical guy.  I’m not sure what Carter was thinking, except that he must have been consciously paralleling past seasons that had proven so popular.

Oh, well.  It’s still “The X Files.”  And it wasn’t all bad.  Check it out on Netflix and decide what you think.

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“Once upon a time and a very good time it was …”

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . . His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was a baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

“O, the wild rose blossoms On the little green place.

“He sang that song. That was his song.

“O, the green wothe botheth.

“When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oil-sheet. That had the queer smell.”

— opening lines of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” by James Joyce

For an excellent explanation of Joyce’s deliberate use of childlike language, see the Sparknotes page here:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/portraitartist/quotes.html

I can still remember Longwood High School’s Mr. Anderson, the greatest English teacher ever to enter a classroom, reading this aloud for us.

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A tiny review of “The X Files,” Season 5.

“The X Files” was in its heyday during Season 5 – this deserves a perfect 10. There were a slew of fantastic mythology episodes, and the standalones included all-time classics such as “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Folie a Deux” and “Bad Blood.”

There was only one misfire – the draggy and unsatisfying “Chinga.” And even that was at least watchable, thanks to onscreen chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Great stuff.

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When Academics Attack — A review of the Season 3 premiere of “Hannibal.”

If you catch up with “Hannibal” via DVR or NBC.com, I might actually suggest you begin with the amazing and beautiful second episode, and not the Season 3 premiere.  I enjoyed the season opener, but not quite as much as everyone else did.  (Seriously, guys, if you think I am alone in lauding this program, google a few reviews.)  The first episode falls firmly for me into the “good, but not great” category; I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

We’ve got an interesting basic story that pays very close attention to Thomas Harris’ source novels and Ridley Scott’s 2000 film treatment, and we’ve got great directing, cinematography and acting.  Gillian Anderson shines, outperforming even the terrific Mads Mikkelsen in the title role.

It was creative and different, with dramatic changes in point of view, tone and setting, as Hannibal absconds from Baltimore to Florence with the extorted Bedelia du Maurier.  It held some nice thematic surprises, as the script humanizes Hannibal unexpectedly — and this is helped by flashbacks in which we actually get to see Eddie Izzard’s bad guy from Season 2 get one up on him in some verbal sparring.  (I am entirely unfamiliar with Izzard’s comedy performances, but damn if he doesn’t make a sweet super-villain.  The guy’s got perfect diction and line delivery, and can be damned frightening when he wants to be.)

But, for me, this episode failed in terms of momentum and tension.  It does very little to move the overarching narrative forward — so little that I suggest it could be seen as ancillary material appropriate for a webisode or DVD extra.  (Yes, I do realize that Hannibal “missing” Will Graham is important in setting up themes and character relationships for the rest of the season, but … whatever.)  This is really a kind of … “milieu” episode that establishes his arrival in Europe and the means to arrive at his cover identity.  The fates of the victims of the Baltimore massacre?  They’re unknown to us.

We can’t feel too much tension — of Hannibal’s two murder victims, one is hardly known to us, and the other is flat out unlikable.  We can’t identify with them.  Nor can we take any pathological satisfaction in Hannibal’s modus operandi.  He kinda shows up and says “Bonsoir” a bit undramatically, and we cut to another scene.

I had the occasional nitpick as well.

1)  The viewer is asked to identify with Bedelia.  For some reason this character has never worked for me.  It certainly isn’t Anderson’s fault.  She’s fantastic.  Maybe the problem is me.

2)  I actually do really like Mikkelsen.  But his stoical approach to the character is nowhere near as satisfying as Anthony Hopkins’ iconic, nuanced, expressive, darkly charming take on the character.

3)  We live in an age of Google image search.  Does no one in Florence notice that “Dr. Fell” looks nothing like an online photograph?

4)  After the climax of Season 2, shouldn’t Hannibal be easily recognized as the world’s most infamous fugitive and alleged serial killer?  Is his image nowhere on CNN.com?

5)  What about facial recognition software?  If a photo of Faux Fell is ever uploaded, might Interpol or the FBI locate him at once?

6)  Seeing Dana Scully (sorry — BEDELIA) sexually harassed at the dinner table just makes me angry.  Fox Mulder needs to appear and kick some ass.  Actually … scratch that.  Send John Dogget.

7)  I don’t like seeing Hannibal appear with even a putative “spouse.”  He’s a lone wolf, to me, anyway.

8)  The dialogue, yet again, is occasionally too overly stylized for me.  Even ingenious people communicate prosaically in their everyday lives.  Do these people sound like Shakespeare when they say “Pass the salt,” or ask what time to set the alarm clock for the next day?

9)  Once or twice, the dialogue is just … bad.  Bedelia:  “Your peace is without morality.”  Hannibal:  “There is no morality — only morale.”  (You can’t call it Shakespeare if it’s trying too hard.)

10)  The symbolism and the references to the feature films are maybe a little too heavy-handed.  I’m talking the hand-on-the-shoulder during the lecture, and seeing one character bashed over the head with a bust of Aristotle.  (“When Academics Attack.”)

Don’t let my compulsive griping get to you if you are a fan of the show, however.  This wasn’t a bad episode, just not the best.  And the second episode of Season 3 is goddam PHENOMENAL.

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My slightly disappointed review of “The X Files” Season 1.

I am blogging my past TV reviews from Facebook; this was my surprisingly unenthusiastic reaction to “The X Files” Season 1.  Yes, this review is dated, as it makes no mention of the show’s impending return.  (Hooray.)

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I love ‘The X Files.” And I mean I REALLY love “The X Files.” It’s possibly my favorite television show of all time, running neck and neck with shows like “24,” Battlestar Galactica” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” So I was very surprised at my own disappointment when, via Netflix, I was able to watch Season 1 in its entirety for the first time. Taken together, I think its 24 episodes deserve a 5 out 0f 10. And bear in mind – that’s coming from a diehard fan.

I first fell in love with this show as its fourth or fifth season was currently airing. This was long before Netflix streaming, and I’m pretty sure it was before DVD’s were even a thing. (I’m old.) What few episodes I’d seen of Season 1 were from syndication and purchased VHS tapes. So I’ve been proclaiming my love for the show (which had a nine-year run) for years without ever having seen much of the early seasons.

Some great TV shows can get off to a rough start. “The Simpsons,” “MST3K” and even “Family Guy” were less than stellar when they first began. Shows like “24” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” were good, but got much better. “The X Files” was surprisingly average.

The first nine episodes were, frankly, poor. There was little of the suspense, mystery and characterization that would eventually make the show great, with Mulder and Scully being flat, and even annoying characters that were thinly scripted and awkwardly played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Duchovny, early on, was just bad. His wooden line delivery made him seem like a Fox Network intern who was standing in for a sick professional actor. Anderson was better, but could only do so much with the clunky and simplistic dialogue.

Episodes like “Ghost in the Machine” and “Ice” seem clearly like ripoffs of sci-fi classics (“2001: A Space Odyssey” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” respectively), though “Ice” still manages to be fun. One episode, “Space,” was so boring that it was painful to watch. “Squeeze,” which is a favorite for many longtime fans, was good, but even it hasn’t aged all that well. I’m surprised the show lasted.

As mysteries or police thrillers, these early episodes also failed. Eager witnesses cheerfully and conveniently present themselves early on to volunteer clues and exposition. The underlying reveals seemed like elements thrown together with little exposition. And Duchovny looks like he’d never held a gun in his life. (I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to wave it around like that.) I can’t remember the episode but, at one point, Mulder (a supposedly brilliant Oxford-trained criminal psychologist) actually confuses schizophrenia with MPD (multiple personality disorder). Sigh.

Then there was a shift in tone and quality. “Eve” is one of the all-time greats. (And it was here where the dark themes and complex overarching plotlines were truly established that would later define the show.) “Beyond The Sea” saw Anderson shine, along with the writers and directors. It was simply fantastic … even unforgettable (thanks in no small part to amazing guest actor Brad Dourif).

“Darkness Falls” and “Born Again” established their creators’ abilities to make great standalone, scary mysteries. Duchovny just seemed to … get better. He settled into the role, became more natural, and the writers seemed to begin giving Mulder the endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies that eventually grew him into an attractive, three-dimensional character that so many people would grow to love.

And the final episode, “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” clinched it. Here the show seemed to reach the greatness that I remember, with a great story with humor, pathos, creepiness, tension and seemingly plausible twists and mysteries. It was wonderful, and a great precursor of the greatness we would see in later seasons.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the show. And Season 1 was really more average than flat out bad. I’m just saying that the first season compares poorly with what longtime fans remember from the next eight years.

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