Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Way Back along with Short Takes on Onward

“Carry On Wayward Son”
(title from Kansas song of that name on their 1976 Leftoverture album)

Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

                      The Way Back (Gavin O’Connor)  rated R

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was once an amazing basketball player in high school, leading his team to state championships; however, personal problems took him away from the game followed by even worse circumstances that have ruined his marriage as well as led him into a dangerous level of alcoholism (not that there are any safe levels of this disease, but considering he can’t even take a morning shower without drinking a beer in the process, then gets blind-drunk just about every night at a local bar he’s easily headed for disaster despite his consistent denials), when suddenly the heart attack of his old school’s coach presents him with the chance to channel his inherent skills into a present crop of mediocre players by agreeing to coach them, further offering a chance to give himself something to focus on, to find some satisfaction in his disrupted life.  Despite continuing with clandestine versions of his drinking as well as trying to instill a level of anger along with court skills into his shocked kids, things start turning around in a more positive direction for all of them—until they don’t.  More details at this point lead us into the spoiler zone so consider seeing this for yourself (I think it’s worth more attention than it got on debut weekend, taking in a mere $8.8 million [a bit more from overseas brings the global total up to $9.5 million] despite playing in 2,718 domestic [U.S.-Canada] theaters while others in the marketplace—especially Onward, reviewed below—did enormously better).  The plot elements may have you thinking this is a boilerplate redemption story, but it’s more nuanced than that, well-acted throughout especially by Affleck.  I know there are louder options out there angling for your time (as well as money), but give this movie consideration if you have time to do so.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: We learn that back in the mid-1990s Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a star high-school-basketball-player, leading his team to state championships, himself twice named state MVP, his number retired at Bishop Hayes High.  Now, though (due to circumstances to be revealed later [maybe]), Jack’s working construction (he was distant from his father, focused on basketball which earned Dad’s respect, but Jack realized it was only the basketball success Dad cared about—not his son—so he didn’t follow up with options for being a college star [yet, that’s not his main emotional/psychological problem; just be patient—but only if you’re willing to veer into spoiler territory below]), is separated from wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), drinks constantly (a beer with his morning shower, vodka in his tall-boy-coffee-mug for during the day at work, spends most evenings at a favorite bar sometimes so passed out a long-time-patron/friend helps him stumble upstairs to sleep it off [says he did that for Jack’s Dad too]).  At Thanksgiving dinner his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) tells Jack she’s heard from Angela, concerned about his increased drinking, although her concern just makes him angry she didn’t call him directly.  Next day he’s asked by Father Devine (John Aylward )—nice pun—at Bishop Hayes to consider coaching the basketball team because their regular coach has been sidelined with a heart attack and his assistant, Dan (Al Madrigal), is mainly an algebra teacher who doesn’t consider himself capable of doing much with these underperforming boys (the school’s teams haven’t been to the state playoffs since Jack’s was there).  He’s not interested, the priest gives him the night to think it over, Jack goes through probably a case of beer rehearsing his refusal phone call for the next day (as he finishes a can he goes to the freezer where he’s put another, never leaving it long enough to freeze before he’s ready to chug), yet accepts the job after all, despite the uphill struggle this team faces to overcome their lousy record.  While a good number of players populate this story, the ones mattering the most to us are Marcus Parrish (Melvin Gregg), with enough attitude problems to finally get him kicked off the team by Jack, Kenny Dawes (Will Ropp) a good enough player with enough talent to make the occasional-3-point-basket but with more concern for romancing (separately) each of the team’s 3 cheerleaders, and Brandon Durrett (Brandon Wilson), the most talented of all but unsure of himself, facing conflict at home from a father who was a high-school-star himself, now bitter that led him nowhere careerwise so he gives no encouragement to his son’s ambitions despite several full-freight-scholarship-offers from several solid collages.  Under Jack’s leadership the team improves significantly, his drinking decreases, yet his anger at various referees’ calls often leads to profane responses, not setting a good example for his team (especially because of the school’s code against such language) but earning their respect as he goads them into being more confident, more aggressive (sometimes a bit too much of the latter, so he pulls back on that better than the cursing).

 Just when it seems like we’re headed for a happy dose of redemption all around (even Marcus is back on the team after begging for another chance, his temper and time-management significantly improved) everything takes a turn for the worst.  In a crucial game, Jack argues a ref’s call actively enough to get ejected, his team losing without his guidance, but that’s remedied by a last-chance-victory over a seemingly-superior-bunch led by an arrogant coach when Jack convinces Brandon to take the winning shot, leading Bishop Hayes into the playoffs.  After the celebration’s over, though, Jack gets a call from Angela that David (Justice Alan), young son of their friend Miguel (Sal Velez Jr.), is back in the hospital with cancer; it’s here we learn David was a hospital-mate of Jack and Angela’s son, Michael, but while David went into remission (about 3 years ago if I did the quick gravestone math correctly) Michael died, the tragedy that sent Jack into his long, destructive spiral.  The return to the hospital is more than Jack can take so he goes back to that favorite bar, again consumes way too much.  Next morning he oversleeps, rushes to the school for practice, ultimately finds himself fired by Fr. Devine because everyone can smell the alcohol on his breath so neither Devine nor Dan feel they can trust Jack with these kids.  Crushed by all this, Jack returns to his previous level of binging, one night picking up a woman at the bar, attempting to drive her home, smashing into her neighbor’s boat parked by the curb, drives his car around to the alley to go in her house by the back door but enters the neighbor’s kitchen instead only to be confronted by the guy who attacks with a baseball bat, sending Jack out the front door, down the stairs to the street, bloody and unconscious.  When he wakes up in the hospital (why the neighbor didn’t call the cops to have Jack arrested I’m not sure), Beth is there telling him he desperately needs help.  He agrees to enter a rehab program, the Bishop Hayes team dedicates their first playoff game—where they open up a comfortable lead—to Jack (with the heartwarming addition of Brandon’s Dad, Russ [T.K. Carter] finally coming to see his son play); in the last scene Jack, alone on a basketball court with the ocean in the background (I guess this all takes place in southern CA), takes some shots.⇐

So What? We’ve seen movies like this before where seemingly-hopeless-sports-teams find a sense of their true character, move on to victory—from baseball-kids in The Bad New Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976) to adults in Major League (David S. Ward, 1989), both played largely for comedy before their more-uplift-endings, to other high-school-basketballers finding their stroke in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986)—along with extending this premise of losers into winners as the coach lays off the hooch, helping his baseball team unleash their true talent in A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992), but, despite giving solid implications we’re in for the same sort of feel-good-triumph-over-adversity in The Way Back there are late-narrative-complications providing an added level of seriousness to this movie (which I won’t comment on any further, out of respect for those hoping to avoid crucial spoilers), forcing us to realize addiction—especially when brought on by an intense trauma (or more than one, given Jack’s unhealthy relationship with his father)—isn’t something always easily conquered, despite the best intentions of the addicted.  Jack’s truly a mess in this movie, just as Affleck admits is a parallel problem for him, battling both alcoholism and family-inherited-depression (which he’s open about, without specifying what his demons have been in the second link to this movie far below in Related Links), so there’s an added layer of intrigue watching Affleck’s excellent command of this role, realizing how the main actor here (who has to run through the largest range of emotions as his character falters, improves, hits challenges again) is personally invested in the content of this role, giving it a sense of validity transcending what at one level may initially seem like a well-constructed-but-obvious-tale of resurrection until it surprises us with elements we encountered in different ways in those other examples listed above.  Fortunately, for me and those I care about, there’s nothing in Jack’s situation I can directly relate to (neither sports star nor fall-down-drunk—well, I have had a few nights of the latter, but, thankfully, they’ve been few and far between over my 72 years; I’ve never had to worry about the former, though, where my best “sports” are trotting at whatever pace I can endure on a treadmill and swimming along in my condo pool during the winter months in a wetsuit when I have the place to myself in under-60water so I don’t slam into anybody while I’m backstroking, my preferred choice to keep moving for 30 min. because I don’t have the strength to go that long swimming forward), but I can appreciate how this character has such a reserve of talent he can even impart it to struggling teenagers who’ve had little opportunity to develop much confidence for themselves—except Kenny in the shadows with the girls, even if he’s a hell of a lot more horny than sincere (hmm, maybe back in high school I can relate to that aspect of this story also)—yet he has such difficulty overcoming his own demons, a universal situation (even, I suppose, for saints) resonating easily with each of us.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The CCAL’s split over The Way Back, with Rotten Tomatoes’ reviewers giving it 85% positive responses but the folks at Metacritic only going to a 68% average score, which more or less mirrors my response in that I liked what I saw overall, yet I felt there was a bit of a seen-it-before-flow to the exposition which made it (seem to be) somewhat predictable, yet it takes some unexpected turns toward the end so it’s not just a formula story reviving memories of others like it cited above but something effectively-different, even as it mirrors Affleck’s own failed marriage to Jennifer Garner (a situation still with some positive connection—as is the case with Jack and Angela—but with the real-life-actors trying to be responsible parents for their own kids, not mourning the loss of one as in this movie).  Overall, I found a lot to like in The Way Back, with Affleck able to effectively carry the load as the main screen presence, the focus of every scene as best I recall (although Madrigal as the assistant coach [far right in the photo below], respects how Cunningham’s able to turn around their terrible team even as he struggles to keep cutting Jack some slack as the various bouts of alcoholism interfere with their mutual project).  There’s not much all that notable (to me, at least) regarding the cinematics of this production, and I’ll have to leave it to those who know basketball considerably better than I do to remark on the staging of those game scenes (all I know is what I’ve learned from watching the Golden State Warriors [now in San Francisco while Oakland gets the contaminated cruise ship] over the last 5 years, but al least that taught me how to appreciate a team consistently making a effort up to the last second, whether they’re winning 3 NBA championships or struggling to rebuild while their remaining superstars are injured, not that it matters much now with all NBA games suspended until further notice due to coronavirus concerns), but they felt well-orchestrated to me, from the clumsy moves of Jack’s team early on to their more confident, successful scoring patterns as they found how to focus what talent they have.  For my last 3 postings—including this one—I’ve used a song title for the title of the posting (this is getting awfully repetitious; anybody out want to edit this mess for the grand compensation of … absolutely nothing?), but that’s not a new policy, it’s simply been a situation of certain songs seeming absolutely appropriate for the content of what I was reviewing, just as “Carry On Wayward Son” fits quite well here in its reflection on the traumas and attempted restitutions Jack‘s struggling with: “Once I rose above the noise and confusion Just to get a glimpse beyond the illusion I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high Though my eyes could see I was still a blind man Though my mind could think I was still a mad man I hear the voices when I’m dreamin’ I can hear them say […] Lay your weary head to rest Don’t you cry no more.  But, I sense Jack saying this to himself, not getting encouragement from his distant, drunken father.

(Yes, there are a lot of photos primarily of Ben Affleck here, but his character is the focus of this movie
as well as—apparently—the publicists' intentions because that's mostly what I found to work with.)
 However, just as I incorporated lyrics from that title song/semi-Musical Metaphor in offering my final thoughts on those chosen cinematic subjects in the previous 2 postings then added an official Metaphor to further enrich my thoughts on these filmic experiences so I’ll do the same this time as well for The Way Back by referring you to The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole” (from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) at focuses on similar subjects in Jack‘s evolving-life with lyrics such as “I’m taking the time for a number of things That weren’t important yesterday And I still go I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in And stops my mind from wandering Where it will go.”  Where he’ll go from this point isn’t the focus of our story (just as in The Natural [Barry Levinson, 1984] where that plot was intended only to get the NY Knights into the World Series but without Roy Hobbs [Robert Redford] to carry them any farther so we’ll never know what became of his team when they finally reached their ultimate challenge, but parting shots do verify Hobbs settled down with his old lover/now wife, Iris [Glenn Close], and their son, found a happiness he’d been fruitlessly chasing for the most part as a ballplayer—despite his career revival as a hitter after a poorly-chosen-choice on the way up derailed his possibilities as a power-pitcher, so his personal “holes” were repaired as well).  What’s next for Jack, how far his team got in the playoffs we’re not meant to know because this is one of those circumstances where the focus is truly on the journey rather than arriving at some destination.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                          Onward (Dan Scanlon)   rated PG

Set in a magical alternate reality of elves, pixies, etc. this story’s about 2 brothers whose Dad died before 16-year-old Ian was born but they find the right tools and spell could bring him back for a day; in the process they only retrieve his lower half so they begin a quest to find a needed magic stone, encountering constant adventures on the way.

Here’s the trailer:

      Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 You may think I have a directionality problem just by reading the titles of the movies I’m reviewing this week, but sometimes you have to move “onward” to find your “way back” to the “place I was before” (with that last phrase getting us into “Hotel California” territory, so if you want to pursue that further scroll way down to almost the end of this posting for a revisit to The Eagles’ greatest hit), just as Jack had to do in his story detailed above; with elf Ian Lightfoot (voice of Tom Holland), though, that “place” was never something he felt comfortable with because it was just a jumble of shyness/fear/uncertainty stemming from the loss of his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer, briefly) to illness just before the boy was born in this alternate universe (where his planet has 2 moons) populated by various mystical creatures fantasized in our realm but in his world everyone seems to be either an elf, a cyclops, a centaur, a fairy, a unicorn or some other form of mystical-being, even though their lives are as generally mundane as ours, that is until Ian’s slightly-older-brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), introduces his hesitant, just-turned-16 sibling to the wondrous world of magic (an opening voiceover informs us it used to be standard in this existence until it fell out of fashion—essentially into obscurity—due to the difficulty of doing it properly along with the rise of technology although Farley’s well-versed in its properties due to his obsession with a wizard-based-game, Quest of Yore).  For Ian’s 16th Mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) brings out a present Dad left to the boys for when they were both old enough; turns out it’s a wizard’s staff and a phoenix stone which, with the proper incantation, will bring Dad back for a day.  Barley assumes he can manipulate it but he’s wrong then shocked when Ian gives it a try, unleashes powerful forces neither of the brothers can properly control which results in a partial re-emergence of Wilden—but only from the waist down—and the destruction of the stone.  Armed with Barley's knowledge of arcane spells, information about the almost-gone-world-of-magic, and a barely-dependable-van (“Guinevere”), the boys set out to find another phoenix stone to finish Dad’s return (however much of him they can conjure up can last only 24 hrs.) with Mom in pursuit, helped somewhat by her centaur-boyfriend (well, it has been 16 years since Wilden died), a cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriquez), not a big favorite of her kids.  Along the difficult way they encounter Corey the Manticore (Octavia Spencer)originally a Persian beast similar to Egypt's Sphinx with a human head, lion’s body, scorpion’s tail; here the head’s of a lion as well, plus she has long-unused-wingsa gang of tiny motorcycle-riding-pixies (they’ve got wings too but have forgotten how to use them), a gorge frightened Ian must cross on an invisible bridge, a cave where they escape a gelatinous cube that consumes everything it touches, and a chamber where they almost drown, all the while leading their half-Dad along on a doggie leash.  Ultimately, they end up back where they started without a phoenix stone.

 ⇒By now, with little time remaining before Wilden completely disappears again (for good), Ian’s proven himself braver than he’s ever been but is completely frustrated with Barley for insisting on a bunch of seemingly-harebrained-choices, causing Ian to call him an “imbecile,” leaving the brothers completely at odds until, with a final insight, Barley finds the needed gem in an old fountain right across from their high school.  Before it can be fully utilized for its proper purpose, though, it also unleashes a curse which takes the form of a huge dragon made up mostly of concrete ripped from the walls of the school.  Ultimately, the monster’s conquered by a combination of Ian, Mom (more feisty than expected wielding a magic sword), and the now-flying Manticore while Ian gives over the remaining few minutes with fully-present-Wilden to Barley because: (1) Ian accepts he never knew Dad at all while Barley has some vague memories of him; (2) Ian realizes that, despite Barley’s bumbling manner, his older brother’s become a bit of a father-figure for him, sharing all the things Ian had hoped to someday do with Wilden.  As time passes, Ian becomes more adept at spell-casting (he’s more attuned to it, like the Skywalkers among those who aspire to be Jedi Knights), magic’s more of a presence in the city of New Mushroomton, the boys come to accept Colt as Mom’s new love, the bond grows between the Lightfoot brothers⇐  (more details here if you prefer).  While, in my opinion, not quite of the superb caliber of such (Disney-) Pixar triumphs as Monsters, Inc. (Pete Doctor, 2001), Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003), WALL-E (Stanton, 2008), Up (Doctor, 2009), Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), Coco (Unkrich, 2017; review in our November 29, 2017 posting), Onward’s a delightful story (based on Scanlon’s memories of the loss of his own father at an early age), although it feels a little forced in how the boys continue to encounter all manner of obstacles in their quest for the new phoenix stone as if the filmmakers felt a need to pad what’s already clearly a reasonably-short-movie (103 minutes), resorting to a few elements in that dangerous cave seemingly lifted directly from Indiana Jones stories (which Disney’s got a right to do, given their ownership of Lucasfilm).  I agree with anyone who says Pixar’s never released an out-and-out dud (OCCU response to Cars 2 [John Lasseter, 2011] notwithstanding: RT 39% positive reviews, MC 57% average score; audiences weren’t as bothered, though, yielding a worldwide gross of $562.1 million), although some feel more accomplished than others; for me, Onward carries a great message of recognizing the value offered by family members you may not appreciate enough because of their surface attributes plus showcasing the expected-visual-brilliance of Pixar’s products, but it may work best as a fantasy-adventure-story for younger kids, with some verification from the CCAL:  RT at 87% positives, MC considerably less at a 61% score.

 One notable element to mention, though, is Pixar’s first openly-lesbian-character, Specter (Lena Waithe), a cyclops-cop, who notes difficulty in dealing with her girlfriend’s kids in a brief scene, discussed a bit in the third item for this movie in Related Links farther below, resulting in it being banned in some Muslim-dominant countries, accepted in others, dialogue changed to “partner” in Russia (this article also notes how coronavirus fears haven't impacted movie attendance yet, as evidenced by Onward’s global haul of $70.1 million in its debut weekend, with overall totals in the same vein as previous weeks).  As for an Onward Musical Metaphor there’s still some reasonable value to be found in “Carry On Wayward Son” (as if sung by Wilden Lightfoot to both his boys, in regard to how they feel about their various shortcomings and potentials): “Tossed about like I’m a ship on the ocean I set a course for winds of fortune, but I hear the voices say Carry on my wayward son For there’ll be peace when you are done Lay your weary head to rest Don’t you cry no more.”  However, just as The Way Back earned its own dedicated Metaphor so does Onward, my choice being The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (a phrase essentially from James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, in his 1884 book The Parables of Jesus, about a little girl carrying a baby boy, then it became a slogan for Fr. Edward Flanagan’s Boy’s Town in the 1940s after it was said to him in 1918 by a boy carrying another one with polio up the stairs; this song, written by Bobby Scott, Bob Russell, was a 1969 hit for the Hollies [after Graham Nash left the group; the recording has Elton John on piano], now found on the U.S. album of that name from 1969 but not on the original version of the U.K. album called Hollies Sing Hollies [but it was included on the U.K. reissue of that one in 1996]) at with such relevant lyrics as “If I’m laden at all I’m laden with sadness That everyone’s heart Isn’t filled with the gladness Of love for one another It’s a long, long road From which there is no return While we’re on the way to there Why not share,” just as Ian eventually learned to do with Barley, overcoming his initial embarrassment about his boisterous bro.  A final note about Onward is for you to be seated by showtime (which, in my case, was about 25 min. after the “official” start due to all the ads and trailers) to see a 5-min. short preceding this feature, Playdate with Destiny, seemingly the first animation from Disney’s newly-acquired (now-renamed) Fox Studios, using the characters (but no voices) from TV’s The Simpsons, dealing with baby Maggie’s infatuation with a little boy, Hudson, as well as incorporating the show’s famous cynicism (some of the action happens in Not Responsible for Injuries Park; there’s more, I just didn’t scribble it down fast enough).  It’s a cute prelude to the more-serious (at times) feature, some indication of what’s to come from the Disney-“Fox” collaboration (the normal Gracie Productions team making this short).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about The Way Back: (24:33 interview with actor Ben Affleck; this is in the context of a conversation with a Christian pastor as Affleck expresses his religious beliefs at times so be aware of such content if it matters to you even though I think there’s some good advice here for any of us, theists or atheists)

Here’s more information about Onward: (7:39 interview with Pixar’s Kelsey Mann, 
head of story for this movie)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 3,323 (our numbers are continuing to be in free-fall, maybe linked to the stock market, although if you check the image just below you’ll find we had more response from Turkmenistan [Wow!] last week, 9,753, than we had from the whole planet for the past month [!!]—almost all of it seen on Internet Explorer [I have to wonder how we look in Windows; maybe that's the reason for our dropoff], but, as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below 
is a snapshot of by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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