Blu Tuesday: The Expendables 3, The Giver and What If

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Expendables 3″

WHAT: When a former Expendable turned war criminal (Mel Gibson) resurfaces years after his supposed death, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) puts together a new, younger team to take him down. But after their mission is compromised and his teammates are captured, Barney must rely on the former members to help him finish the job.

WHY: The “Expendables” films have never exactly been subtle, but that’s part of their charm. The other part is seeing the world’s greatest action stars share the screen like a kid playing with all of his favorite action figures at the same time. The best thing about this model is that it allows for fresh additions with each new installment, and the third movie takes full advantage with another round of dream casting. Though the “new blood” (including Kellan Lutz, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz) fare just fine alongside their larger-than-life counterparts, the real treat is seeing old-timers like Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas back on the big screen. Not only do they belong on this team (even more so than Randy Couture and Terry Crews), but they don’t waste any time proving it, with Banderas stealing every scene he’s in as the motor-mouthed new recruit. Harrison Ford also seems to be having fun as Bruce Willis’ replacement, while Mel Gibson’s funny but ruthless villain is easily the best in the series. (Take that, Jean-Claude Van Damme.) Unfortunately, you have to suffer through a bunch of terrible one-liners and puns, generic PG-13 action and an overlong 126-minute runtime just to get to the good bits, and despite the talent involved, there aren’t enough to make it worth your time.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty substantial making-of featurette, profiles on the new recruits, a behind-the-scenes look at filming some of the action scenes, and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“The Giver”

WHAT: Set in a dystopian future without emotion, color or choice, a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to become the new Receiver of Memory – the person in charge of storing all past memories before the period of Sameness – and begins his training under the previous receiver (Jeff Bridges). But when he realizes that their community is a shadow of what existed before, Jonas sets out to unlock those repressed memories and restore order.

WHY: Stuck in Development Hell for nearly two decades despite being a passion project for co-star Jeff Bridges, “The Giver” probably would have languished there forever were it not for the recent success of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Though the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry has become a mainstay on many middle school reading lists over the years, “The Giver” is a tricky book to adapt for the big screen, not only in the way that its protagonist begins to experience more of the old world, but the heavy themes that it broaches along the away. For what it’s worth, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job, but the problem with director Philip Noyce’s adaptation is that for a movie about the dangers of uniformity, it’s strikingly vanilla, with barely an original idea to be found. Bridges delivers a solid performance as the title character (you can tell that the source material means a lot to him), but the rest of the cast – from its wooden leading man to Meryl Streep’s chief elder – is as underwhelming as the story itself. This is one book that would have been better left untouched.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray releases includes an interactive study guide, a featurette on adapting the book for the screen, highlights from the original script reading, footage from the press conference, an interview with author Lois Lowry and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“What If”

WHAT: More than year after a messy break-up, med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) hits it off with a cute animator named Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at the house party of a mutual friend (Adam Driver). Although Chantry already has a serious boyfriend (Rafe Spall), Wallace decides that he’s okay with just being friends… until he realizes that his feelings are a little more complicated.

WHY: Though its premise is somewhat unique in that one of the characters is already in a relationship when the movie begins, “What If” is a pretty formulaic romantic comedy that follows all the beats you expect and rarely strays off course. Luckily, director Michael Dowse has assembled a fantastic ensemble cast that elevates the material beyond its genre conventions. Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis and Rafe Spall are all good in supporting roles, but it’s the two leads – and their chemistry with one another – that makes “What If” better than the typical rom-com. Zoe Kazan has carved out a nice little niche as the indie love interest (the girl next door who’s cute and attainable, but with just enough edge to ensure she’s never boring), while Daniel Radcliffe radiates charm in one of the best roles of his post-Potter career. Some of the humor is a bit over-the-top, but for the most part, it boasts a playfully sarcastic tone that provides Kazan and Radcliffe with plenty of fun banter. “What If” doesn’t revolutionize the genre in any way, but if you enjoyed “(500) Days of Summer,” there’s a good chance you’ll like this as well.

EXTRAS: In addition to a behind-the-scenes look at making the film, there are three brief (but very similar) featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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Blu Tuesday: 22 Jump Street, Sin City and Into the Storm

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“22 Jump Street”

WHAT: When they humiliate the police department during their latest assignment, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are sent back undercover, this time at a local city college to find the source of a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy. But when Jenko makes friends with the main suspect (Wyatt Russell), his relationship with Schmidt becomes strained as they split up to investigate different leads, which threatens to derail the entire mission.

WHY: For a while, it seemed like everything that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller touched turned to gold, adapting challenging source material into successful comedies with a flair for visual gags. But they haven’t had quite the same luck with sequels, as evidenced by recent films like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “22 Jump Street.” Striking the same self-mocking tone as the original, “22 Jump Street” skewers Hollywood’s formulaic sequels by openly acknowledging the rinse-and-repeat plotline and noticeably larger budget. Although it’s a clever approach that earns some laughs, it doesn’t change the fact that the film is still a complete retread from top to bottom. Lord and Miller inject the movie with the kind of silly, manic energy that’s become a touchstone in all their projects, but there aren’t enough truly laugh-out-loud moments, with many of the recurring jokes failing to hit their mark. Even when it starts to drag in the middle, however, there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to its two leads, especially Channing Tatum, who’s so funny as the dim-witted jock that he makes every scene more enjoyable. As a result, “22 Jump Street” isn’t entirely good or bad, but rather a perfectly mediocre comedy with just enough laughs to remind audiences what they loved about the first movie while failing to validate the need for a sequel.

EXTRAS: There’s a ridiculous amount of bonus material here, highlighted by 22 deleted scenes and an audio commentary by directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Also included are four production featurettes, a collection of cast improvisations, Line-O-Ramas for five different scenes, a “Dramatic Interpretation” of the film and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

WHAT: An anthology of intersecting stories set in Sin City. Private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin) is tricked into helping out his dangerous former lover (Eva Green); a young drifter (Joseph Gordon Levitt) faces the consequences of beating Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at the poker table; and stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) plots her revenge against the man responsible for the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

WHY: Robert Rodriguez has been talking about a “Sin City” sequel since the first film hit theaters, so what took so long for the prolific director to finally deliver on his promise? Your guess is as good as mine, especially when he wasted that time making garbage like “Shorts,” “Spy Kids 4” and two “Machete” movies. A lot has changed in those nine years, and whereas the original was pretty groundbreaking both visually and technically, the long-awaited follow-up feels stale in comparison. Though only two of the four stories featured are from Frank Miller’s graphic novels – the titular centerpiece “A Dame to Kill For” and the Marv-centric prelude “Just Another Saturday Night” – the best of the bunch (featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s perpetually lucky gambler) is an original story written by Miller for the movie. Unfortunately, the other new segment is hands-down the weakest entry from either film, not only because Jessica Alba’s stripper is a complete bore, but because it makes a huge mess of the overarching continuity. In fact, the sequel as a whole isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor, and although it’s great to see Mickey Rourke reprise his role as the unstoppable brute Marv, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” lacks the wonder and excitement of experiencing something for the first time.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a high-speed green screen version of the movie that lasts about 15 minutes, featurettes on the stunts and make-up effects, and some character profiles.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Tammy, Jersey Boys and Getting On

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Tammy”

WHAT: After she wrecks her car, is fired from her job and discovers that her husband has been cheating with their neighbor, all in the same day, Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is desperate to leave town as quickly as possible, and her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) – who has the two things Tammy needs most: a working car and some cash – decides to tag along. But when they end up driving the wrong way, the two women decide to make the most of the mishap in an attempt to patch up their troubled past.

WHY: Like pretty much anything that Melissa McCarthy does these days, your enjoyment of “Tammy” will depend entirely on how you feel about the actress as a performer, because for those who were already sick of her tedious, one-trick pony act after “Bridesmaids,” sitting through McCarthy’s latest movie is about as pleasant as a punch to the face. It’s bad enough that Tammy never shuts up, but director/co-writer Ben Falcone wants the audience to sympathize with her as well, even though she’s largely to blame for much of what happens over the course of the film. She’s not as mean-spirited as Diana from “Identity Thief,” nor as vulgar as Shannon from “The Heat,” but she’s not someone you’d necessarily want to be friends with either. So when the movie suddenly tries to manufacture a romance between Tammy and Mark Duplass’ nice-guy farmer in the final act, it doesn’t just feel unearned, but completely unrealistic considering he had zero interest in her only a few days prior. That initial meeting takes place shortly after an exceedingly confident Tammy brags about how men are attracted to her like “flies on shit,” and in that instant, McCarthy provides the perfect ammunition to describe her recent career, because that’s what this movie is – a big, steaming pile of shit.

EXTRAS: In addition to a short featurette about a family road trip that Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone took following production on the film, there are four deleted scenes, some alternate takes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Jersey Boys”

WHAT: The story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, from their early days as two-bit gangsters in New Jersey, to their rise to fame thanks to hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

WHY: Clint Eastwood is one of the last people you’d expect to direct a film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” – or any stage musical, for that matter – and it definitely shows, because it’s one of the worst stage-to-film adaptations in recent memory. In fact, the movie isn’t really a musical at all (save for the end medley/production number), instead going for more of a rockumentary feel that doesn’t translate very well to the screen. The main problem is that with the exception of the great catalog of songs, the film isn’t terribly interesting, barely scratching the surface with its “Behind the Music”-esque narrative. It’s rife with all the usual melodrama of a music biopic, but the characters are never fully developed, despite the fact that the film’s bloated 134 minute runtime gives plenty of opportunities to do just that. Vincent Piazza (as group member Tommy DeVito) and Christopher Walken (as Jersey mobster Gyp DeCarlo) both shine in supporting roles, but the rest of the acting is mediocre at best, particularly theater vets John Lloyd Young and Michael Lomenda. Eastwood was clearly having a senior moment when he agreed to do “Jersey Boys,” because not only is it one of the weakest movies in his oeuvre, but it fails to showcase why the Broadway production was such a huge hit.

EXTRAS: There are three featurettes in total, covering the movie’s journey from Broadway to the big screen, actor Donnie Kehr’s experience working with Christopher Walken, and filming the grand finale.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Getting On: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After agreeing to serve as the temporary Director of Medicine in the Extended Care Unit at Mount Palms Hospital, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) is disheartened when the assignment is made permanent, relegated to work in the soul-crushing facility alongside new supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez), head nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and rookie nurse Denise “DiDi” Ortley (Niecy Nash).

WHY: Though it flew pretty far under the radar during its first season, this U.S. remake of the BBC series of the same name is one of the more underrated shows in HBO’s lineup. Every bit as much a satire as it is a drearily honest and sobering look at our country’s broken healthcare system, “Getting On” makes the typical black comedy seem lighthearted in comparison. Though the humor on the show can be a little too dry at times, and some of the in-jokes are only funny if you’ve worked in a hospital setting before, it features sharp writing and excellent performances from its cast. Laurie Metcalf, Alex Bornstein and Niecy Nash all deliver great work in their respective roles, while the guest stars (including Molly Shannon, Daniel Stern and a potty-mouthed June Squibb) provide many of the best moments. The only weak link is Mel Rodriguez’s sexually ambiguous Patsy De La Serda, whose character is so annoying (even if that’s kind of the point) that the show becomes infinitely less entertaining whenever he appears on screen. That’s not the only area where “Getting On” could improve, but although it’s not quite the hidden gem that it could have been for HBO, it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of likeminded comedies like “Derek.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: The Newsroom, Hercules and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following an exclusive report on a top-secret U.S. drone strike that turns out to be untrue, the “News Night” staff becomes embroiled in a legal battle when the producer responsible for the story sues the network for wrongful termination. Meanwhile, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the campaign trail with the Romney press bus and Maggie (Alison Pill) deals with the aftermath of a traumatic trip to Uganda.

WHY: Some people really love to hate “The Newsroom,” and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Though the show can be a tad exaggerated at times (both dramatically and comically), it has great characters and the kind of clever, rapid-fire dialogue that’s become synonymous with every Aaron Sorkin production. Season Two isn’t as strong as its debut season – due to the more focused, season-long drone storyline and certain subplots that remove key characters from the very environment they thrive best – but with the exception of the new title sequence, it’s the same old “The Newsroom,” particularly when taking on real-life topics like the 2012 Elections, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin. Sorkin’s writing dazzles as always, but it’s the performances by the ensemble cast (from stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, to supporting players like Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Thomas Sadoski) that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s a shame that more people didn’t feel the same way, because although the series is returning for a shortened third season, it still feels like a loss, especially with so few great shows left on HBO outside of “Game of Thrones.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes four audio commentaries with various cast and crew, the usual collection of “Inside the Episode” featurettes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Hercules”

WHAT: After enduring his legendary 12 labors, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries are hired by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to protect his people from a tyrannical warlord, only to discover that he may be fighting on the wrong side.

WHY: It’s actually quite surprising that someone hasn’t tried making a Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson sooner, because it’s a role that he was born to play. But while the film is marginally better than Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” it’s rooted even less in the original myth, instead using Steve Moore’s comic book series as its inspiration, which suggests that Hercules wasn’t a demigod at all, but rather a mortal man whose legend far exceeds his abilities. Johnson does a good job in the title role, though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, and Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (as fellow swords-for-hire) add some color to the otherwise drab story, but there’s nothing really special that sets it apart from the many other sword-and-sandal movies. The action sequences are incredibly generic, the twists aren’t surprising at all, and although the story offers a unique interpretation of the Hercules tale, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the bait-and-switch approach to the material. After all, would you rather see a movie about the Hercules from Greek mythology, or one about an ordinary guy named Hercules who just happens to be stronger than most? Exactly.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, there’s an introduction to the film from Ratner and Dwayne Johnson, featurettes on the characters, weapons and specials effects, a behind-the-scenes look at filming one of the major actions sequences and 15 deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Maleficent”

WHAT: When she’s tricked by her human friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) – who steals her wings in exchange for a place on the throne – vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses the king’s newborn daughter with a spell that will take effect on her 16th birthday. Sent away to a remote cabin for her protection, Maleficent comes to care for Princess Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) after realizing that she may be the land’s only hope for peace.

WHY: Hollywood loves a good fad, and two of the more popular trends these days are fairy tales and villains, so it’s not surprising that Disney would want in on the act, especially after the mild success of Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Just like that movie, “Maleficent” attempts to humanize its iconic baddie by turning her into a misunderstood antihero whose fall from grace wasn’t entirely of her own making. But just like every other cinematic villain to get the revisionist treatment (from Dracula to the Evil Queen), Maleficent is stripped of everything that made her such a great character in the process, and perhaps even more troubling, as the victim of a creepy drug rape that’s never addressed. Angelina Jolie has the physicality and talent required for the role, but while she does a good job with the material provided, it would’ve been more fun to see her play a full-fledged villain compared to the morally gray character here. Though “Maleficent” is an admirable attempt at breathing new life into a classic tale, there are so many problems with the story and supporting characters that it would have made more sense to go the direct route and make a live-action “Sleeping Beauty” movie instead.

EXTRAS: There are five short featurettes – including a look at Elle Fanning’s involvement in the film, Maleficent’s costume design and the various stages of the writing process – as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: Wish I Was Here, Begin Again and Deliver Us from Evil

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Wish I Was Here”

WHAT: Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a struggling actor whose wife (Kate Hudson) is the sole breadwinner of the family, so when his father (Mandy Pantinkin) becomes sick and is no longer able to pay the children’s private school tuition, Aidan agrees to homeschool the kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). The problem is that Aidan has no idea what he’s doing, so instead, he takes them on a series of “field trips” meant to impart life lessons that help him rediscover his own identity in the process.

WHY: Hating Zach Braff was in fashion long before the actor/director launched a Kickstarter campaign for his long-awaited sophomore effort, but the way he went about funding his follow-up to “Garden State” really got under some people’s skin. While Braff may have been unfairly judged for the way he raised the money to make the film, it’s a wonder why he had to resort to crowdsourcing at all, because “Wish I Was Here” is a confident, funny and heartfelt tragicomedy that proves Braff is more than just a one-hit wonder. The “Scrubs” star does a solid job in the lead role, and Mandy Pantinkin and Joey King both deliver great supporting work, but it’s Kate Hudson who is the movie’s most pleasant surprise, turning in her finest performance since “Almost Famous.” The script is nothing special, even bordering on schmaltzy at times, but there’s an honesty to the material (especially the father-son relationship) that certain people will connect to more than others. “Wish I Was Here” is a much more grown-up film than “Garden State,” exploring a range of themes like morality, sacrifice, family and fatherhood, and although some might be handled in a slightly pandering manner, there’s an innate sweetness to the movie that compensates for its lack of subtlety.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes two audio commentaries (one with co-writer/director/star Zach Braff and co-writer Adam Braff, and another with Zach Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher and editor Myron Kerstein), as well as some deleted scenes, outtakes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Begin Again”

WHAT: After being fired from the record label he helped found, music producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), stumbles into an open mic and discovers what he believes to be a hidden gem in British singer-songwriter named Greta (Keira Knightley). Determined to share her indisputable talent with the rest of the world, Dan convinces Greta to record an album with a live band in different locations across New York City in the hope that he can persuade his former business partner (Mos Def) to sign Greta to their label and rescue his job.

WHY: It’s incredible what can be achieved when you combine music with film, and John Carney exploited that perfect pairing with his musical drama “Once.” Eight years have passed since the small indie’s Cinderella story at the Academy Awards, and in that time, the Irish-born director made a couple movies in his native country that flopped. So while it may seem a tad desperate of Carney to mark his Hollywood debut with another music-driven relationship drama, he’s just playing to his strengths. The overall theme of “Begin Again” is certainly very familiar – like “Once,” it’s less about two people falling in love with each other than the music they make together – but the film is a decidedly more lighthearted affair. With that said, the soundtrack is just as good, featuring an infectious array of bluesy folk-pop songs performed by a surprisingly capable Keira Knightley. For as much as the movie depends on the music, however, it’s just as reliant on its two stars, who form such a delightful chemistry that it’s hard not to get caught up in their fairy tale. “Begin Again” doesn’t have the same magic of “Once,” but it’s a sweet crowd-pleaser highlighted by a pair of great performances and some catchy tunes.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty decent making-of featurette and four music videos featuring songs from the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Deliver Us from Evil”

WHAT: New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) investigates a series of connected incidents involving a trio of Iraq War veterans. Though Sarchie initially believes that the men have gone crazy as a result of PTSD, he discovers that they may actually be demonically possessed when he teams up with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramirez) who specializes in exorcisms.

WHY: Here’s hoping that no one at Marvel Studios saw Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us from Evil,” because it hardly inspires confidence in his ability to tackle a project as challenging as “Doctor Strange.” Though this isn’t the first time that Derrickson has directed a movie about demonic possessions (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table apart from the decision to blend supernatural horror with a police procedural. Unfortunately, it’s not very scary or suspenseful, but actually quite boring due to a sluggish two-hour runtime that’s about 30 minutes too long. There’s no need for all the setup, especially when the two leads don’t even join forces until the hour mark. Even more grating, however, is the suggestion that any of this actually happened. The movie is reportedly based on the accounts of the real-life Sarchie, but like most exorcism stories, all of the supernatural events occurred either in his head or while he was alone. In other words, he’s just like every other nut job who believes in this stuff, only he wrote a book about it. Of course, even the most successful exorcism films (like “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring”) are steeped in bullshit, but unlike “Deliver Us from Evil,” they found a way to be effective pieces of horror regardless of your beliefs.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Scott Derrickson, there are featurettes on the real-life Ralph Sarchie, the makeup effects designed for Sean Harris’ character and a behind-the-scenes look at making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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