“Birdemic: Shock and Terror” Pays Homage to an Alfred Hitchcock Classic

21 08 2011

Visionary writer/director James Nguyen pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film “The Birds” with “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” his own homegrown “romantic thriller™.” (We know he’s a visionary because the trailer for “Birdemic” says so. And yes, the phrase “romantic thriller™” appears with that ™ in the trailer.) Released in 2008, “Birdemic” has taken wing as more than a mere tribute, though. It’s come to stand for all that is great – and delightfully terrible – about inept, low-budget filmmaking.

Like “The Birds,” “Birdemic” takes its time in unleashing its true horror upon the audience. The first half of the movie is mostly about Rod, a young software salesman, and Nathalie, a hot model he meets. After spying her in a diner, Rod realizes they’ve met before. They went to high school together…they sat two seats apart in English class in eleventh grade…but he never made a pass at her. When Nathalie asks him why – in those words – he says he was too shy.

Both of their careers are going great, fortunately, and they make a great couple, as they quiz each other on their interests and ideal mates over Italian food. Rod closes a million dollar sale from the comfort of his open-air cubicle – the biggest deal he’s ever made, so high fives all around! – while his company is bought for a billion dollars (“A billion!” the CEO keeps repeating to his assembled staff of about 14 people.) Meanwhile, Nathalie’s agent at “Dream Models” informs her that she’s been selected to be the cover model for the next Victoria’s Secret catalogue – although her mother would feel better if she would get a real estate license, you know, in case that modeling thing doesn’t work out. Because, yeah, landing the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue is no guarantee of anything.

After a double-date with another couple, Rod’s friend from work and his girlfriend, who happens to be Nathalie’s best friend, things start to go bad. That’s not just because after watching “An Inconvenient Truth” at the local multiplex, the other couple excuse themselves to go to a meeting: “A sensual meeting,” as the dude explains. Yeah, that movie is quite a turn-on. No, while Rod and Nathalie make tender love without undressing in a motel room they inexplicably check into even though he lives alone, the little town of Half Moon Bay changes. After long panning shots of the local scenery – the quaint streets, the English pub, the pumpkin patch – the town is savagely, suddenly attacked by flocks of birds that somehow seem able to (a) hover, (b) spit acid and (c) explode.

The birds even find Rod and Nathalie in their motel room, banging on a window and waking the still-dressed couple. They manage to escape and knock on a nearby door where another couple is hiding out. Since Rod has lost his keys, they join forces, escaping the motel room by brandishing coat hangers against a flock of hovering birds in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes. They then speed off in the guy’s beat-up Ford Aerostar minivan. And since he’s an ex-Marine, he has lots of assault rifles in the vehicle, enabling them to shoot at the birds as they drive away, taking out some of them in graphics that are about two steps up from the video game “Duck Hunter.”

Word of the attacks has spread; “forest wildfires” threaten the countryside, and gas stations gouge desperate drivers with $100 per gallon prices. After saving two frightened kids, they pick up snacks and a case of bottled water, but that doesn’t keep them from stopping by a stream to refill some empty bottles with fresh water. While in the forest, a self-professed “tree hugger” wearing a terrible wig explains that he’s safe in the forest, so…good for him! They also encounter a roadside bandit who steals their gasoline can at gunpoint, but is viciously slashed by a bird.

After running out of gas, our heroes make their way to a beach, where Rod catches a fish and Nathalie gathers seaweed for a delicious dinner, although both children express a preference for Happy Meals. Before Rod and Nathalie can cram the seaweed and fish down the kids’ throats, the birds attack! Again! This time, they are saved by another flock of birds: Peaceful doves that drive off the awful eagles and hawks. As the little band watches the two flocks of birds very very slowly fly off in the distance, the credits roll.

I knew “Birdemic” was going to be special from the word go. The film opens on local traffic, as a white minivan waits at a traffic light to make a left turn. “Ah ha,” I thought. “Whoever is driving the car must be our hero.” But we never see the white minivan again. After it turns, we cut to a blue Mustang, which we follow for a long time while the credits roll, never seeing who’s driving. For a minute or two, the Mustang is followed by a bright yellow tow-truck which is towing another car, so I thought that might be something, but no. We see Rod at last, for the first time, when he reaches his office and gets out of the car.

Also, quick pointer for would-be filmmakers out there: When you shoot through the windshield of a beat-up Ford Aerostar, it’s okay to clean the windshield.

In many ways, the high point of “Birdemic” may be the scene in which the CEO tells Rod and the rest of the staff that the company has been bought out for “a billion dollars! A billion!” It’s a chilling indictment of greed in corporate America, as the staff applauds the buyout. Director Nguyen films the staff, seated at a table, two at a time; as each pair finishes applauding, we cut to another pair, who are still applauding, until we see the full horrific effect of the applause. Or, in other words, “A billion!”

Or it could be the terrifying scene in which Rod and his Marine friend, Ramsey, rescue some people trapped in a double-decker tourist bus by hovering turkey vultures. Rod and Ramsey aim at the birds and bus, but manage to kill the birds without causing any apparent damage to the bus or the people inside. Who all get killed by more birds the minute they make their escape.

Nguyen does an admirable job combining his love of Hitchcock with an environmental message. Because, as Dr. Jones says, “It’s the human species that needs to quit playing cowboy with nature. We must act more like astronauts, spacemen taking care of Spaceship Earth.” and he should know. He’s a scientist.

This fall, Rod returns in “Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D,” as the marauding birds attack Hollywood! It’s sure to be every bit as good as the original “Birdemic,” because James Nguyen is a visionary.

Here’s the official trailer for “Birdemic.” There are lots of clips from the movie on YouTube, so be sure to check them out!



A Challenging Homage to Alfred Hitchcock in “Double Take”

18 06 2011

Director Johan Grimonprez concocts a strange homage to Alfred Hitchcock in “Double Take,” a film that’s fascinating in both construction and intent.

Working with a British Hitchcock look-alike, a Hitchcock vocal impersonator and archival footage, “Double Take” presents a tale of the Master of Suspense’s troubling meeting with his own twin. Set in 1962, during the making of “The Birds,” the film segues from Hitchcock’s intros to his own TV series to the double, shot at a distance and on grainy film stock, to images of Hitchcock’s film cameos edited together so that the Hitchcock of one era meets the Hitchcock of another.

But the film has bigger ambitions than telling a disturbing story of a famed filmmaker. The scene shifts; gray, static-filled images blur and refocus, and now we’re watching the encroaching dread of the Cold War era. The U.S. races the Soviet Union into space while Nikita Kruschev debates Richard Nixon on national television. The Cuban Missile Crisis nearly destroys our world.

While these scenes from the evening news play on, many featuring Walter Cronkite, Hitchcock tells us more about his doppleganger. The voiceover never quite matches the images, blurring what we perceive and making it all a little more believable, plausibility be damned. There is Hitchcock again, releasing pigeons with Tippi Hedren in a publicity event for “The Birds” or, in my favorite bit of archival footage, riding a bicycle in circles circa 1930.

Grimonprez revels in his movie’s sleight of hand, but like a post-modern magician, he reveals his own tricks even as he plays them. The movie starts with our vocal impersonator, seen in the studio, listening to tapes of Hitchcock and mimicking that slow, sonorous voice. The Hitchcock look-alike tells how he came by his trade; up close, he looks only a little like the Master of Suspense, but in the long shots, he almost could be the real thing.

“Double Take” is a challenging treat for fans of Hitchcock or of arthouse movies, one that features not so much a plot as an impression of plot, and that is both a tribute to Hitchcock and a meditation on fear.

“Dial L for Latch-Key” – An Absurdist Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

15 04 2011

Scott Fivelson performs a mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock movie tropes in his charming one-act play “Dial L for Latch-Key.” As the title suggests, the play takes “Dial M for Murder” as its starting point, then spins out in some very funny and strange directions.

“Dial L” features four main characters: Raymond, the scheming husband who looks like Ray Milland; G, his wife, awaiting execution for a murder committed in self-defense; Bob, a cocky American, and G’s boyfriend; and the Inspector, investigating the crime before it’s too late. In “Dial M for Murder” the inspector was played by John Williams, and Fivelson captures Williams’ tongue-in-cheek performance as a seemingly bumbling but actually razor-sharp detective.

The references to Hitchcock films fly fast and furious in Fivelson’s witty dialogue, as characters discuss notorious plans, family plots, proving someone’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt and more. It’s a treat for Hitchcock fans, replete with appearances by the hired killer who tried to kill G, a know-it-all film critic who resembles Peter Bogdanovich, and Hitch himself, who arrives in time to berate the cast for their inept attempts to catch the real criminal.

But “Dial L for Latch-Key” is more than a tribute to the Master of Suspense. It’s a full-on trip into absurdism, beginning with the steamer trunk in the first scene that’s decorated with travel decals boasting of trips to Sing-Sing, Leavenworth and the Old Bailey. G’s time in prison, awaiting execution, has changed her; as she puts it in a newly acquired accent, “I went in British, I came out Russian.” The shifts in identity seem to be catching; Bob is secretly an FBI agent, and the Inspector, too claims to be Russian – with the name Latchky.

“Dial L for Latch-Key” recently had a successful run at the New End Theatre in London. It’s published by Hen House Press, and you can order it from Amazon here.

And you can revisit my article on “Dial M for Murder” here.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Final Twist: Family Plot

30 03 2011

And so we come to “Family Plot.” Released in 1976, 51 years after Alfred Hitchcock directed his first feature length motion picture, “The Pleasure Garden,” this final film was Hitch’s Opus number 53. Hitchcock did not know it would be his last picture, and it is a slightly odd note to finish on, as it is, in a way, a dark romantic comedy about two criminal couples: One, essentially bumbling con artists, the other, ruthless kidnappers. It features Hitchcock’s usual sharp script, several interesting set pieces, and very appealing performances by some young talent.

Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed revolution after revolution in the film

Even on his final film, Hitch's attention to details like color remained impeccable

industry, and the 1970s were no less tumultuous than the decades before. 1975 had been the year of “Jaws,” which ushered in the new era of blockbuster films; 1976’s biggest film was “Rocky.” Yet “Family Plot” held its own against “All The President’s Men,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Omen” and others, finishing the year a very respectable number nine at the box office. Not at all bad for a seventy-seven year old filmmaker!

Like “Frenzy,” this was the new Hitchcock: Its script was fully of salty language, and its characters were adult in every sense of the word. In the era of the MPAA ratings system, sex had finally and unabashedly entered Hitchcock’s work. Where the sex in “Frenzy” had been violent, here, in “Family Plot,” it was more benign, as two unmarried couples carry out their criminal activities while continually crossing paths as though they were in a farce.

The two couples are Madame Blanche, a low-rent psychic played by Barbara Harris; her boyfriend, George, an actor and cab driver, played by Bruce Dern; Arthur Adamson, a sociopathic criminal played by William Devane; and Fran, Adamson’s accomplice in kidnapping, played by Karen Black.

Blanche and George have been hired by a rich old woman to find her long-lost nephew, Edward Shoebridge, who had been given up for adoption as a baby. Having been promised a ten thousand dollar reward, Blanche shows her innate honesty by setting out to find Shoebridge, rather than putting George up in his place. It’s a mark of Hitchcock’s strong characterization here – not a quality generally regarded as his strong suit – that we accept Blanche and George’s plan. Blanche’s scam as a spiritualist is only a little crooked; she very likely sees herself as telling nice people what they want to hear. George, being a bit on the dim side, goes along with her on this.

As the pair discuss their job, George nearly runs over a blonde woman in a black trenchcoat. We follow her and learn that she is on her way to a meeting to get the ransom for a kidnapping victim: a large, flawless diamond. She leads a helicopter pilot to the victim, then dashes off to meet Adamson, the mastermind of the operation. Back at home, Adamson hides the diamond in a crystal chandelier, practically in plain sight.

George starts poking around for information on Shoebridge, learning that he killed his parents and he tried to fake his own death. George follows a lead to gas-station owner Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter), who runs to tell Adamson what’s happening – because Adamson IS Shoebridge. Adamson runs a jewelry shop by day, and when he learns that George is asking questions about him, he puts Maloney to work, asking him to kill George.

Maloney calls George and Blanche, saying he wants to meet at a diner up in

As their car careens out of control, Blanche holds on for dear life - to George's tie

the mountains. While they wait inside, Maloney cuts the brakes on their car. (The scene inside the diner is a hoot, as a priest shows up with a bunch of Sunday school kids, then sits at a different from them, where he meets an attractive woman.) On leaving the diner, after deciding they’ve been stood up, George loses control of the car. There’s a lengthy scene of the car racing down the mountain out of control, with George struggling to keep from crashing and Blanche shrieking and falling all over the place – it’s an obvious parody of car chases from movies like “The French Connection,” although Harris’s shrill performance her is a bit grating.

Moments later, as they stagger into the road again, Maloney drives up to check on his work. Seeing them still alive, he proceeds to try and run them off the road, but ended up going over a cliff himself. Hitchcock shows us not the car crash but the reactions of Blanche and George – as always, he exercises great restraint.

After escaping the car – it’s on its side, so Blanche climbs out the top window while George crawls out the bottom one – they regroup. They put together Adamson’s true identity, and George goes looking for information on him at a local church, just as Adamson and Fran drug and kidnap a bishop during mass, with the whole congregation watching in shock, as though they really were sheep.

Blanche, meanwhile, has been knocking on the doors of anyone in the area named A. Adamson, in a funny montage sequence in which she runs into several unlikely candidates, including a black woman and a set of twins. Finally, she finds the right A. Adamson. She expects him to be thrilled to hear that he’s going to be heir to millions, but she never gets to tell him the news, as she has caught Adamson in the middle of moving the unconscious bishop. Adamson and Fran grab Blanche, drug her and throw her into a room they have hidden behind a fake brick wall.

Luckily, George finds his way to Adamson’s house as well. He spots Blanche’s car out front and sneaks into the house, standing on the stairs to eavesdrop on Adamson and Fran as they plan to get rid of Blanche. George sneaks down to the hidden room, letting Blanche out of the room while trapping Adamson and Fran inside.

The infamous wink to the camera

Before they call the police, George tells Blanche that the diamond ransom is hidden somewhere nearby. Blanche falls into a trance and walks straight to the stairs, where she can reach the diamond, as George says, “You did it, Blanche! You really are a psychic,” in a moment that feels like something out of “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” The film ends on an even stranger note, as Blanche looks directly into the camera and winks.

“Family Plot” was based on the novel “The Rainbird Pattern,” by Victor Canning, adapted by Ernest Lehman, who had last worked with Hitchcock on “North by Northwest.” Hitch asked Lehman to keep things light and fun, and that is what Lehman delivered. The wink to the audience at the end is unlike anything else in Hitchcock’s work, and it is just one of the elements of “Family Plot” that made me think of Shakespearean comedy – the kind that ends with couples paired off together, and actors whisper asides to the crowd.

Aside from the parody car chase, the film’s other interesting set piece was in a maze-like cemetery, where George attempts to question Maloney’s widow, played by Katherine Helmond, best known as Mona from “Who’s the Boss?” as well as her role in “Brazil.” Another future TV star, Nicholas Colasanto, later known as Coach on “Cheers,” chews up the scenery as the kidnapping victim at the start of the movie.

Hitchcock was very happy with the cast in “Family Plot.” He had worked with Dern before in “Marnie,” and the actor had appeared on “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Dern kept Hitchcock amused during shooting with some odd ad libs. Hitchcock had wanted to work with Barbara Harris for some time, and here, she is terrific, moaning and squeaking her way through her psychic sessions and acting like an adorable nut the rest of the time.

Hitchcock with the cast of "Family Plot," including Roy Thiennes

Hitchcock had cast William Devane as Adamson/Shoebridge, but by the time production got under way, Devane had to back out. Hitchcock recast with Roy Thiennes, only to learn that Devane was available again a few days into filming – so Thiennes was out with no explanation, and Devane was back in. There’s a famous, if chilling, story about Thiennes running into Hitchcock in a restaurant; Thiennes asked why he had been fired, and Hitchcock said nothing until Thiennes finally gave up and walked away.

The runaway car scene demonstrated both Hitchcock’s continued mastery of filmmaking and his flagging stamina. The scene was carefully storyboarded, as the car zigzags through oncoming traffic – cars, trucks and motorcycles. Hitchcock keeps the

A storyboard from the diner scene

scene completely subjective by showing only the people in the car, George and Blanche, and the driver’s point of view on the road. Never do we see a shot of the car itself, so we’re forced to experience the dangerous ride, which is a brilliant update of Roger Thornhill’s drunken drive in “North by Northwest.” (Karen Black’s blond-wig disguise is also reminiscent of the opening scenes of “Marnie,” where blon

A rare color shot of Hitchcock on set, looking in charge but exhausted.

But for all his careful planning, Hitchcock could not direct the scene as he might have. Herbert Coleman reported that he wanted Hitch to do what others would, by sitting on the back of a flatbed truck next to the camera during filming; Hitch said, in so many words, that it would not be possible in his condition.

As he had in so many films, Hitchcock pondered his cameo here endlessly; given that wink at the end, one wonders if perhaps his greatest concern was how old he looked. He is seen in shadowy profile through a frosted window in an office door; the window bears the words “Registrar of Births and Deaths.”

Here’s a look at the trailer for “Family Plot.” You can tell how much Hitch liked his cast – I believe this is the only trailer he narrated where he talks about the actors!

Next, we’ll look at “The Short Night,” Hitchcock’s final unproduced film, as well as the book about it, “The Final Days of Alfred Hitchcock.”

Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Seasons 4 and 5

31 01 2011

Continuing our look at episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” directed by the master of suspense, we move on to seasons four and five.

In season four of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Hitch direct only two episodes. The first is called “Poison,” based on a story by Roald Dahl, which aired on October 5, 1958.

Set on the south sea island of Malaya, the story takes place after midnight as Timber Woods (Wendell Corey) returns to his quonset hut home after a party. He finds his business partner, Harry Pope (James Donald), lying rigidly in bed, covered in sweat. Pope swears that while he was reading, a poisonous snake slid into bed and curled up on his stomach, and that he’s been lying completely still for hours.

Woods laughs it off, saying that Pope is drunk as usual, but Pope insists that he’s not, and that he needs help. Woods decides to grab the thing, but Pope won’t let him. They decide to call for a doctor to come with venom antidote, and while they wait for the doctor, Woods torments Pope, threatening to tell his girlfriend about his alcoholism unless he gives up his half of the business. Pope, struggling not to move or cough, has no choice but to agree.

The doctor arrives and administers the serum, but is still worried about the snake. He decides to try putting the thing to sleep with chloroform, which he pours down a tube inserted under the bedsheets. After waiting a few minutes, the doctor and woods gently pull the sheet back to find no snake. Pope is certain that there was a snake, but Woods laughs it off, sending the doctor on his way.

Still laughing at his former partner, Woods offers him a drink. Pope throws it in his face, but Woods shrugs it off and takes a seat on the bed. Yawning, he puts his head down on the pillow, and the snake strikes. Woods is poisoned, and there’s no way to reach the doctor in time.

The master of suspense lets the suspense build slowly but surely in “Poison.” Until the very end, we’re not quite sure whether or not there is a snake in that bed, and when we find the answer, the snake does just what we want him to by poisoning the bad guy. The episode echoed season one’s “Breakdown,” as both feature a protagonist who cannot move, for very different reasons, of course. Hitchcock, meanwhile, discusses his new device for discouraging pickpockets: a snake in his coat pocket.

John Williams returns in “Banquo’s Chair,” broadcast on May 3, 1959. Set outside of London in 1903, the story must have appealed greatly to Hitchcock, as it is from a rather similar mold to his early film “The Lodger.” Here, Williams plays Mr. Brent, formerly a police detective, who’s played a visit to a Major Cockfinch (Reginald Gardiner), who recently bought a house where a woman had been killed two years before. Brent had investigated the murder but never resolved it, but now that he’s retired, he’s determined to find the answer using some unorthodox means.

At the time of the murder, Brent had suspected young Roger Bedford of killing the woman, his aunt. He was her only heir, but at the time, he had an alibi. At the time, Brent had no way of disproving Bedford’s story; now, however, a new production of “Macbeth” has opened on the London stage, starring a woman who’s a dead ringer for the victim. Brent has convinced her to dress as Bedford’s aunt to startle a confession out of him.

Brent has invited Bedford to dinner with Cockfinch under the pretext that some new evidence in the aunt’s killing has surfaced. Brent puts off that topic till after the meal, though, and while they eat and talk, the woman appears in the shadows of the next room, looking for all the world like an apparition. Bedford, who’s been growing increasingly nervous the whole evening, jumps out of his seat and threatens to kill her again, at which point a police officer enters the room to arrest him.

While Bedford is led away, Brent and Cockfinch congratulate each other, and the woman playing the aunt joins them. The woman apologizes, saying she’s just arrives, and asks if she’s too late. Brent stares into the camera in shock.

“Banquo’s Chair” is an old-fashioned ghost story, and if it’s hoary, it’s also fun to watch as Hitchcock revisits the kind of tale that appealed to him since he had been a boy.

Williams, a favorite character actor of Hitchcock’s, appeared in seven more episodes of the series which were directed by others.

Season five, like season four, featured only two episodes directed by Hitchcock. In “Arthur,” first shown on September 27, 1959, Laurence Harvey plays a chicken farmer with a modern, scientific approach to his trade. Wearing a white lab coat, he tells the story of how he became a murderer. It began when his girlfriend, Helen (Lauren Court), tells him that she’s breaking off their engagement to marry someone else.

Arthur takes the news coolly, letting Helen go without much of a fight, but when she returns to him a year later, after leaving her husband, he views her with a cynical eye. He now sees how demanding she is, and before she talks him into accepting her back into his life, he sneaks up behind her and strangles the life out of her.

Things heat up with Arthur’s police sergeant friend, played by Patrick Macnee, traces Helen to Arthur’s farm. Arthur tells his story so simply that he believes he’s thrown the sergeant off his trail, but the police haven’t given up. While Arthur is away, they tear the farm apart and find nothing. Eventually, the police give up, and Arthur finishes his story by explaining that he got rid of Helen’s body by grinding it up and mixing it into the chicken feed.

Hitchcock’s introduction to this episode has him taking up chicken farming as well, but he can’t seem to get his hens to lay geometrically shaped eggs.

The fun of “Arthur” is mostly in the performances, as the punch line – how he disposes of the body – is not much of a surprise. As in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” it’s hard to believe the police wouldn’t look in the right place for evidence of murder.

Hitchcock directed only one more episode in this season: “The Crystal Trench,” which premiered on October 4, 1959. It’s an enjoyable throwback to Hitchcock’s films of the late 1930s, particularly “Secret Agent.” Set around 1910 at the Schwarzhorn peak in the Alps, possibly in Austria, the story concerns mountain climbing and icy death.

The episode stars James Donald as the British mountain climber who’s been asked to tell a fellow hotel guest, Patricia Owens, that her husband has died while climbing the Schwarzhorn. Owens can’t believe it, but after speaking to the climbers’ mountain guide, played by Werner Klemperer, she realizes that her husband is indeed gone. Donald reluctantly agrees to climb the mountain himself to recover the body, but when he finds it precariously perched, and when he and his companions attempt to recover it, it falls off the mountain and into a glacier.

Donald, meanwhile, has a realization of his own – that he is falling in love with this young widow. She, however, is determined to keep the memory of her late husband alive, saying that she will never remarry. Months go by, and Donald asks her to marry him, but she refuses. She then takes him with her to meet a scientist who explains the glacier’s movement. Donald realizes that Owens intends to recover the body of her late husband when it emerges from the glacier – in forty years time!

We next see Donald and Owens forty years later, gray and wrinkled, as several workers dig at the glacier’s edge. They find the body as predicted, perfectly preserved by the ice, giving us a poignant moment of reunion between the young husband and his wife, now so much older than him. The moment is shattered, though, when Donald takes a locket off the body to show Owens. When he opens it, the picture inside is not of Owens but of another young woman.

“The Crystal Trench” has a strong impact because instead of being about a mere murder, it’s about a wasted life.

Hitchcock himself does some mountain climbing in the introduction, cutting a rope that’s in his way – and that happens to have his business partner on the other end. With false innocence, he sends the partner to his doom, watching him fall and then saying, “I seem to have made a faux pas.”

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