Wakanda Forever

So. Black Panther.

Right now, I want nothing more than to geek the crap out about this movie. It’s, wow. Ryan Coogler’s quickly become one of my favorite directors (courtesy of Creed and Fruitvale Station), and this movie is the icing on the cake.

There’s so much to love about it. The plot moves along at a clip pace, so much so that I found myself wanting more when it ended. Its supporting cast is as interesting as its leads, with everyone getting their due and characters like Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri stealing the show (and seriously, Okoye is the coolest). The conflict between T’challa and Killmonger is surprisingly nuanced, one where there is no real easy answer. Does a super advanced African nation have an obligation to other Africans, both those within the continent and part of the diaspora? Or should Wakanda remain isolationist, able to remain free of colonialist influence?

And these are all well and good facets of the movie (Okoye is so stinking cool), but there is, of course, the obvious one: Black Panther is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature not only a black protagonist, but a predominately black cast as well. On top of that, these characters are from Wakanda, a fictional, utopian country in Africa. They’re cool and they’re badass; they get to do the superhero schtick.

That’s a big part of what makes the movie so interesting (on top of that it’s an excellently crafted film): its representation. This is a movie where a bunch of people who don’t usually get to be these sorts of heroes gets to be these sorts of heroes. Not only that, but Wakanda is a science-fiction style setting that doesn’t draw on Western influences, but rather celebrates Africa. Wakanda is Afrofuturism put up on the big screen, and believe you me, it’s refreshing. Characters wear traditional African outfits that, guess what, generate force fields and also look really cool.

That Black Panther is succeeding is excellent news for genre fiction. It proves that blockbuster science fiction and action don’t have to be about white people with decidedly western influences. If we can get this Afrofuturistic fantasy, maybe now an East Asian inspired science fiction story is viable, and one outside of anime at that. Or an anime that’s been adapted and now stars a white actor in the lead. Now there’s room for a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world where Spanish conquistadors don’t even enter into the equation.

For better or worse, media (that is, movies, television, books, games, etc) is predominately dominated by the West (and, in particular, the US). As such, most of the stories that Big Movies and blockbusters draw on are Americentric; we’re used to stories with characters who look like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers ‘cuz those are the stories that get told. Black Panther is a shift, it’s a movie that says “Hey, you don’t have to look like Ryan Gosling to be the superhero.” You can look like Chadwick Boseman.

So does this mean there’s gonna be a scifi epic coming out soon starting a Chinese dude in a Changshan kicking ass but not in an orientalized kung fu way? God, I hope so. It’s hard for me to find words to describe exactly what it was like watching Black Panther, getting to see this dope futuristic world that celebrated a culture that wasn’t, well, white. It was different, it was cool; in Wakanda it showed a country that’s as much an ideal as it is a fantasy.

And throughout it all, I couldn’t help but to ask when was my turn. When am I gonna get to see people who look like me in a big blockbuster, when am I gonna get to see the culture I’ve spent so much of my life a part of celebrated in a science fiction film featuring the people who actually live it? Sure, I’m only half-Asian, but that’s a half that doesn’t usually get seen.

In the meantime, Black Panther’s freaking awesome, go watch it, and celebrate what it does.

There’s gotta be more to come. 

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Space Car

There is a car in space right now.

Like an actual road-safe, driven on earth on an actual road, not-originally-intended-for-space car in space. And it was playing David Bowie until it ran out of juice.

So, a while ago, Tesla/SpaceX/Boring Company founder/potential supervillain Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon Heavy’s test payload would be his own Tesla Roadster. The Falcon Heavy is the latest rocket to come out of Musk’s SpaceX. Which sounds pretty cool but it’s important to know what the Falcons are: reusable rockets.

See, when you launch a rocket in space, it’s kinda a one-off thing. The Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions were just junk afterwards. The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because the booster rockets could be recovered and refurbished (along with the orbiter as well). The Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9 it’s built on, can also be reused. Not just that, but the rocket literally lands itself. As in, after launching its payload, the first stage detaches, turns around, comes home, and lands.

It’s really cool, both as a technological marvel in itself and also for what it portends to making spaceflight more affordable. Which is really cool because if we’re going to start mining asteroids and send people to Mars, we’re gonna need to make it cheaper to get out there.

And there’s also a car in space.

Tuesday was the Falcon Heavy’s first launch and its payload was, as promised, Elon Musk’s red Tesla. Given that it was the rocket’s first flight, and first flights tend to result in things exploding, it made some sense that it wasn’t anything too valuable (although there’s an argument that given the prohibitive nature of space travel, any risk is one worth taking). But a convertible instead of a mock satellite?

It’s a pretty remarkable image. Leaving Earth’s orbit is a red car, top down, with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, “DON’T PANIC” written on the dash, a towel and a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy in the glovebox, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars” playing on the radio. It was sent beyond Earth’s orbit into an elliptical around the sun, its aphelion nearly reaching the Asteroid Belt.

There’s a car in space.

And its picture’s been all over the internet, all over newspapers. This picture of a spaceman in a car, Earth in the distance behind. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of people are talking about it, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve been ranting on about spaceships and space cars on a blog that’s usually about stories.

Because, by launching a sports car into space, Elon Musk created a pretty neat narrative for the Falcon Heavy’s launch. It’s not unusual for a dummy payload to be a bunch of concrete bricks, something heavy and unimportant. But because the payload here’s a car (and the company CEO’s personal car at that), it becomes that much more interesting. There’s an endlessly shareable image that captures the imagination in ways the picture of rockets touching down can’t quite.

People are talking about the Falcon Heavy’s launch far more than the Falcon 9’s maiden launch or when the Falcon 9’s booster landed for the first time. It’s even gotten way more buzz than when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad (All this is based on a cursory Google Trend comparison for the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, with SpaceX used for reference). There’s buzz, people are talking about space travel. And all the little touches and the Hitchhiker’s reference gives it all a sense of romance and whimsey we don’t usually get in the usually very rigorous and economic space travel. It’s cool, and it’s a little silly.

Call it an attention grab, but I figure that’s just what’s needed. Musk and SpaceX have the world’s attention as they forge on ahead in an attempt to revolutionize space travel. An aware an excited public puts space exploration back into vogue, which could lead to NASA having a bigger budget and, in turn, more contracts for SpaceX, and so bigger rockets and crewed missions to Mars.

And in the meantime, Elon Musk launched his car into space. And I think that’s wonderful.

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Rey and Luke

I liked a lot of things about the The Force Awakens, but easily my favorite addition was Rey, who is undeniably the best. Sure, she’s basically Luke Skywalker in the original, except she’s someone who’s grown up with those same stories and now gets to live them out. It’s cool, and she gets a lightsaber and that’s awesome.

But The Last Jedi doesn’t give Rey some grand adventure. Rey doesn’t actually do a whole lot over the course of the film. While Poe’s facing down the First Order fleet she’s… talking to Luke Skywalker. While Finn and Rose are searching Canto Bight she’s… still talking to Luke Skywalker. Then she has the Throne Room (which is an epic highlight to be sure) and her run against the TIE Fighters in the Falcon, but past that she just lifts a bunch of rocks (and saves the Resistance, sure). My point is, Rey spends most of the movie sitting on an island talking to Luke and, sometimes, Kylo Ren. Which really seems like she’s just spinning her wheels for a solid chunk of time. Why doesn’t she get to do more? Why do you take your best character and leave her idling on the wayside?

Because she’s not idle, not quite. Her arc in the film is her wrestling with the legend of Luke Skywalker: both in arguing with the man himself, but also her own desire to enact the same narrative. Let’s lay out the parallels: both Luke and Rey are from nowhere desert planets. Both wanted something more than their expected life, and both were whisked off on a grand journey to defeat a galaxy-threatening evil. Along they way they also discovered that, hey, they’re strong in the Force! Come the sequels, Luke goes to a distant planet to learn to be a Jedi and redeems Darth Vader. So now Rey, who knows the story of Luke, finds herself on a distant planet with a Jedi Master; the next steps are clearly to become a Jedi herself and redeem Kylo Ren, the heir to Vader’s legacy.

But as Luke says, this isn’t going to do the way she thinks. He is not training Jedi, and his lessons is in the Force are all to dissuade her from trying to take up the old mantle, to continue the old legacy she so desperately wants and Luke resents. Essentially, Rey wants the Jedi Order of the Republic to come back, and Luke wants it to end. Rey and Luke’s conflict boils down to whether or not to put another quarter into the arcade cabinet blinking “Game Over.”

Meanwhile, a Force connection emerges between Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo offers another foil for Rey, someone with whom she can butt heads about who’s right, and who’s wrong. But as their relationship develops and they see their similarities, Rey also finds another narrative she can enact: the redemption of a Sith. If Luke could turn Vader, could she not turn Kylo too?

Rey leaves Ahch-To and Luke’s training for two reasons. With Luke unwilling to give her the Jedi training she really wants (and swoop in to save the Resistance), she figures Jedi Masters are bunk and she’ll save the Resistance herself. But this is also her chance to save Kylo and bring him back to the light. Screw Luke Skywalker, she’s gonna do the Luke Skywalker schtick without him and redeem Kylo, save the Resistance, and continue the Jedi Order.

Remember what I said about things going the way you think? Kylo can’t be turned, and Rey’s Ultimate Catharsis is undercut. She failed. She didn’t get to save the Dark Lord and turn the tide of the battle. And she doesn’t get to be Luke Skywalker. When Kylo turns Rey down, she not only has to contend with the loss of a would-be friend, but she also finds herself shaken to the core: she’s nobody, and she’s certainly not gonna be Luke Skywalker.

Rey does end up rescuing what’s left of the Resistance, but they lose the fight, Luke is gone, and her lightsaber is split. Things have really gone sideways. But this is The Last Jedi, a movie that wonders what to do with the past. Rey has seen the legacy she had hoped to inherit come crumbling down.

And maybe it should have, maybe Luke was right and the time of the Jedi Order of old is at an end. Maybe it’s time for Rey to stop trying to be Luke and figure out what Rey’s story is.

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But For Adults

Dennis Villeneuve is currently attached to the latest adaption of Dune. It’s an exciting prospect: Dune is a rich novel and Villeneuve has shown himself to be both a skilled director and excellent at adaptations.  Arrival was an excellent adaption of a terrific short story, one that managed to make the feeling of the ephemeral come as much to life on the screen as the page. Blade Runner 2049 somehow captured the moodiness of the original while injecting it with something new.

So if there’s someone who can do Dune, a big sci-fi epic novel, justice, it’s probably him. And recently, when asked about it, he said “in a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.” Which, at first blush, sounds cool (lasers and spaceships with wanton sex and violence!), but it belies a frustrating intellectual divide when it comes to fiction, particularly genre works.

Take Game of Thrones, which I’ve heard described as The Lord of The Rings but for grown-ups. Which, sure, makes sense. Both are epic fantasies, but Thrones has a more dubious depiction of morality, a stronger emphasis on politicking, and, of course, the sex and violence it’s infamous for. It’s a fair description. But, implicit in the comparison, is the idea that The Lord of The Rings is not for grown-ups and is thus a kid’s story, and a kid’s story not particularly suited for adults at that. In other words, if Game of Thrones is adult, then The Lord of The Rings is childish.

Which is blatantly untrue. Sure, I first read and loved Rings as a kid, but the books and films resonate as much, if not more, today as they did fourteen years ago. Rings might have a clean-cut approach to the idea of good and bad, but is that any less appealing to an adult than what we get in Thrones? Isn’t there something to be said for a story that works well on different levels?

As a side note, it’s kinda ironic too, given than when Rings first came out it was unique for taking fantasy tropes like wizards, elves, and dwarves and putting them into a more mature context.

So Star Wars. George Lucas himself described the movies as basically being for kids. Which is kinda true, even if the prequels spent an odd amount of time discussing trade tariffs. But that doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. The story of a nobody leaving her home planet and finding herself to be more powerful than she ever imagined is as fun as an adult as a kid. Because the Star Wars films don’t talk down to they audience, they doesn’t feel geared too heavily to one audience. In other words, just because a movie works for kids, doesn’t mean it’s a kids movie.

I think there’s an overcompensation here when it comes to science fiction and fantasy works. Because these genres are seen as being less serious than, say, a period piece or a capital-d Drama, there’s a need to make them seem grown-up so as to not be laughed off. Game of Thrones, with its incest and child marriages, gets lauded as showing the gritty realism of a fantasy world that Rings glosses over. And maybe Villenueve’s Dune’s Arrakis will have all the harsh brutality of desert world that we never saw on Tatooine. But isn’t there room for both? Can’t we have more adult-orientated works without dismissing others as childish?

I describe The Last of Us as a grown-up video game. Not because video games are just for kids, but because it goes places most games don’t; its rich exploration of grief and loss aren’t the sort of things you’d find in Halo or even more adult-intended games like Spec Ops: The Line. The pleasure of the game (although The Last of Us can be a decidedly unpleasant game to play in places) comes from having the emotional maturity for the themes to really resonate. That’s not to say games intended for a younger audience like Uncharted or, why not, Mega Man Zero 3 are inherently lesser because they don’t go where The Last of Us goes; rather they’re different games and great for different reasons. I love Mega Man Zero 3 and its epic story as much in my mid-twenties as I did at thirteen.

I’m looking forward to this new adaption of Dune. I’ve been meaning to reread the book and it is one of the grandfathers of space opera as we know it. And of course I’m rooting for Villeneuve and I want the movie to be good. But I think this impression that the more romantic takes on genre fiction are childish is, well, childish. A story can be uncomplicated and romantic but still resonate strongly with an adult. And as an adult, sometimes I want a story uncomplicated and romantic.

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Artistry in Disaster

The Room is an awful movie and I adore it. It’s terribly made, replete with an incoherent plot and some truly questionable acting decisions, but it also manages to cross that elusive line of terribleness into wonder. It’s a movie that makes you ask how on earth could something like this have been made as you delight in the fact that it was. It is also a movie best enjoyed at a midnight screening with a multitude of plastic forks and having imbibed an adult beverage or three.

Like I said, it’s a delight.

Part of the fun of the movie is, of course, Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer/funder/lead actor. Him of indeterminate age and untraceable accent. In an ordinary world he wouldn’t be the face of a romantic drama (turned comedy by happenstance), and yet, here he is, at the forefront of his realized vision. And by vision I mean a fever dream that borders on misanthropy. The making of the film is mythic, with stories from the set describing a filmmaker with too much money who didn’t know what he was doing.

In any case, it’s kinda hard to sum up The Room in all of its absurdity and unintentional hilarity, but needless to say, it’s totally deserving of its cult status.

Which is what makes the film The Disaster Artist so odd. Based on a book about the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist dramatizes the production of The Room, showing off some of the set’s idiosyncrasies and also zeroing in on the friendship-of-sorts between Tommy Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero. It’s a perfectly decent movie in its own right, but its choice of subject matter is where things get hairy.

Because the production of The Room wasn’t really a great thing. Wiseau was a draconian director which, if reality was remotely like how it’s portrayed in the film, created a really not-great set to be on. Yet it’s really funny to watch, especially as something of a dark comedy. The problem is, Wiseau’s presented as being kinda heroic, which isn’t quite bad, it just makes it a little harder to laugh at. Especially because in The Disaster Artist’s revisionist take, The Room’s premiere is met with immediate laughter and applause and Tommy quickly revels in the so-good-it’s-bad status (in reality, the film was reviled and only later became a cult classic; Wiseau’s embrace of that came even later). In essence, The Disaster Artist is about a funny-but-tortured filmmaker who puts his cast and crew through hell to make Art. Which feels overly simplified.

It doesn’t seem much better if you look at the movie as one about friendship. Tommy and Greg are friends, friends who promise to push themselves further than they’ve gone before in pursuit of their dreams. Yet, within the context of the film (and maybe real life too), Tommy effectively sabotages any chance of Greg’s success outside of the film. And when Greg calls him out on it, Tommy gaslights him into staying friends. Sure, it’s funny, but The Disaster Artist’s basis on a true story moves some of it into the realm of the uncomfortable. Because for all its talk about dreams of success, the real life ending to the story is that neither Greg Sestero nor the rest of the cast went on to any level of filmmaking success.

Maybe The Disaster Artist would have worked better as a really funny tragedy, maybe if the movie had some breathing space after the premiere where Tommy made amends and tried to become a better person before getting his catharsis of being a ‘beloved’ filmmaker. As it is it feels… odd.

I enjoyed The Disaster Artist well enough, and it is a very funny movie. But it falls into the category of a movie about making movies that’s so in love with the idea of making movies that making movies is the ultimate absolution and apotheosis. Which is a bummer, because The Room is at its heart, so much more. Well, maybe less. I’m still not sure. But it’s sure something else alright.

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Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

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The Return of The Boyband

One hundred and forty-four essays (not rants) ago I wrote about the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XV and how it was frustrating to see an entirely male party, albeit one justified by a space to allow the exploration of bromances.

Anyway, the game came out and all that, and I stopped paying attention to much (any) of the press. Then it went on sale on Amazon for $20 and, after being convinced by my girlfriend (“You’ve been waiting eleven years, just buy the game”) who informed me it was $16.45 in 2006, adjusted for inflation, I bought the darn game. And have subsequently played it.

And boy howdy it is odd.

A ten year development cycle is never a good sign for a game, and Final Fantasy XV (née Final Fantasy Versus XIII) shows a lot of growing pains. Its mechanics are a little wonky, with its open world showing nowhere near the contemporary finesse of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Metal Gear Solid V. Even Mass Effect Andromeda for all its flaws made exploration fun; in FFXV, it’s a bit of a commute. Combat is cool, although it feels like it’s hampering itself by not letting you make more changes to your gear on the fly. It’s fun enough, if a bit of a mechanical mess.

But the story is where the game is at its most, both for better and worse. You play as protagonist Prince Noctis (Emo Bro) who is on a road trip to meet his betrothed, the Oracle Luna, with his retinue/bros consisting of Gladiolus (Muscle Bro), Ignis (Nerd Bro), and Prompto (Selfie Bro). We’re from the capital city of Lucis, Insomnia (this game is not subtle). Anyway, a cold war goes hot, Insomnia falls, the king dies (so Noctis is king now?) and we gotta find ancient magicky Royal Arms weapons to take back the throne.

Or something.

Truth be told, the narrative is a bit of a convoluted mess. I mean, I know what’s going on, insofar as I just explained, but the political lines aren’t really drawn all to well and I’m not quite sure how the Royal Arms are gonna help me get my kingdom back and avenge my father and all that. Also I think we’re still going to pick up Luna? But right now Luna’s going around waking up these gods and I’m also going to the gods to get their powers? I think?

In some ways it feels like there are ten years’ worth of ideas stuck to a cork board in this game, and they don’t always mesh too wonderfully. I’m not saying this game needed another year of development, more its connective tissue needed to be worked out a bit more, keep the player placed in the story.

Because there’s a lot of good! The combat system is wonky but when it works it is awesome to be warping around, swapping from a sword to a spear by materializing the new weapon out of mid air, and plunging into a giant frog (then warping across the field to stab a goblin). Exploring the world isn’t always smooth, but it’s a really cool world, with a delightful merging of contemporary tech/culture (smart phones, dope cities, route 66 style rest stops and garages, machine guns, etc) with some serious high fantasy (magic swords, normal swords, deamons that only come out at night, gods, magic meteors, etc). It’s weird, it’s fun, but we don’t really have enough moments to really get the feel and explore this world. Like, I’m told that in Lestallum it is the women who do the work, but outside of seeing female NPCs in overalls, nothing really happens with it.

But. The bromance. I can go fishing while exploring, and afterwards Muscle Bro sets up camp, Nerd Bro cooks, and we look at the pictures Selfie Bro took during the day (and I choose which ones to save). Along the way they talk crap about all sorts of things, be it Nerd Bro’s glasses or Selfie Bro asking what I want him to take pictures of. Nerd Bro and I (Emo Bro) had a bonding moment over cooking once, and Muscle Bro told me that he’s sworn to protect my life and that means that he’s gonna call me on my bullshit. Sure, I’m disappointed that the main female characters thus far are all NPCs and are basically just pure angel lady, Muscle Bro’s sister, and eye candy mechanic; but I am actually enjoying my retinue/bros (though Emo Bro is pretty boring thus far).

I’m told the game is about to get even weirder soon, with the open world being abandoned for something more traditionally linear involving a train, and in all honesty, I can’t wait to see where it goes. It’s nowhere near as compelling as, say Final Fantasy XIII or VIII, but it’s a lotta (weird) fun.

This is a game where an actual battle command is to have Selfie Bro snap a picture. And for some reason, having this dude take a picture while I’m fighting for my life against a massive monster feels just right for this game.

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