Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: ‘The Invisible Man’ in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with ‘Upgrade’ in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combined elements of: ‘Black Mirror,’ ‘Minority Report’ and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life, as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic: ‘Grey Trace,’ feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves ‘Grey’ paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul: ‘Eron Keen,’ who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named: ‘STEM’ that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, ‘Grey’ decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: ‘STEM.’ ‘Upgrade’ was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the ‘Saw’ and ‘Insidious’ series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped-out of Wan’s shadow, ‘Upgrade’ immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut: ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ three years prior. ‘Upgrade’ also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as ‘Grey’ humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as ‘Upgrade’ is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with it’s surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist: ‘Grey Trace,’ quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife: ‘Asha Grey.’ That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving ‘STEM,’ ‘Grey’ begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as ‘Eron Keen’ and the voice of: ‘STEM,’ respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving ‘STEM’ a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of: ‘Upgrade’ by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio, as after obtaining ‘STEM,’ the camera itself visually reflects ‘Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement ‘Grey’ makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, ‘Upgrade’ was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of: ‘Minority Report’ and ‘The Matrix’ sequels. However, unlike those films, ‘Upgrade’ does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots, as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time, Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like ‘Upgrade.’ As the electronic score echoes films like ‘Blade Runner’ during its quieter moments through tracks such as: ‘Aftermath’ and ‘A Better Place,’ before the more action-orientated cues kick in with tracks like ‘We Can’t Let Them Win.’ The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, ‘Upgrade’s absurdly well-executed action set-pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time, as not only does the camera ceaselessly track ‘Grey,’ as previously mentioned, but the choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of: ‘Upgrade’s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, ‘The Upgraded’ (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

To conclude, even though ‘Upgrade’ is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas, with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold-up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo, Depraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors including ‘Siren,’ ‘Animal’ and ‘Dead Souls.’ ‘Beneath,’ released in 2013, may have sounded like an estimable idea during its conception, being pitched as a minimalist creature-feature that explores the direful outcomes of human behaviour under the influence of extreme isolation and fear. But as a result of its overemphatic performances, mindless screenplay and frequently mishandled visuals, whatever little tension and intrigue ‘Beneath’ manages to build-up is completely capsized by the time the end credits roll.

Plot Summary: Following their high-school graduation, a group of friends decide to spend one last summer outing together at ‘Black Lake’ before going their separate ways. But when their rowboat is struck by an amphibious creature, subsequently killing a member of the group and destroying their oars, the five remaining friends find themselves trapped in the middle of the reservoir, contemplating whether one of them should be thrown overboard as a distraction…

While the original screenplay for the film had flashbacks which further developed the characters and explored their individual journeys throughout high-school, Fessenden ultimately decided to remove them. This allowed the entire film to be shot in a mere eighteen days, which certainly shows, as ‘Beneath’ is a largely dull affair, following the usual formula for a creature-feature outside of one or two subversive moments. Given Fessenden’s past work, it would also make sense that the film could go so far as to suggest that the creature in the lake doesn’t actually exist, and is, in reality, just a physical manifestation of the characters’ ulterior motives. Yet regrettably, this is not the case, and ‘Beneath’ opts to play things relatively straight, with the characters being devoured one-by-one in equally idiotic ways.

On a similar note, the title of the film doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the tranquil water, but is also a guide to where ‘Beneath’s substance lies. With the film’s unbearable roster of characters, compromising of: ‘Johnny,’ a brooding, long-haired loner, ‘Kitty,’ the rotating object of desire for practically every male character in the film, ‘Matt,’ the golden-boy jock whose prospects seem to be going downhill since graduating, his younger, less athletic but more intelligent brother: ‘Simon,’ along with ‘Kitty’s best friend: ‘Deb,’ and the hyperactive filmmaker: ‘Zeke,’ each having a respective outburst as simmering high-school grudges, rivalries and romantic betrayals factor into the survival stakes. But as a result of the exceptionally awful dialogue, the prospect of any tension within the story soon becomes virtually non-existent, even with the cast of Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jon Orsini, Mackenzie Rosman and Griffin Newman having their brief moments of promise in a film brimming with atrocious performances. Moreover, the friendship between the characters feels so unnatural from the outset considering their vastly different backgrounds and personalities.

Cinematographer Gordon Arkenberg tries his best at keeping the solitary setting of a stranded rowboat visually interesting, which beyond some oddly framed shots and sequences that can only be described as ‘visual disarray,’ is a goal he somewhat succeeds in, particularly whenever the camera is pointed towards the beautiful scenery, where the stillness of the lake accentuates the ominous threat of the creature prowling just beneath its surface. Nevertheless, these shots are soon defaced by harsh shadows and a bleached colour palette due to the whole film being shot using natural light. Judging by the editing, you would also be forgiven for thinking that ‘Black Lake’ is the largest lake in America, as the characters spend hours upon hours rowing with their broken oars (and eventually hands) only to make zero progress in a poor attempt of elongating the runtime.

Even though there is next-to-no focus placed on the original score by Will Bates, the score for: ‘Beneath’ is competent if very forgettable, making a fair effort to enhance the supposed tension on-screen. Except for the track: ‘Last Stand’ that is, which sounds as if it’s from another soundtrack entirely, mimicking the score from a light-hearted romantic-comedy more than anything else.

As for the film’s main feature; the creature itself closely resembles the appearance of a giant anglerfish. And whilst I can respect this decision given the anglerfish is one of the most naturally frighting animals on the planet, this choice also displays a great deal of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers, as taking what is already an intimidating-looking animal and simply enlarging it is a rather indolent approach to designing your marketable monstrosity. Having said that, the combination of puppetry and animatronics that bring the creature to life are impressive despite their limited range of movements.

All in all, while some may get an ironic laugh out of this ninety-minute trainwreck, I feel most will agree that ‘Beneath’ is above all else just a frustrating experience, with one of the film’s only positives being its commendable reliance on practical effects over CGI. But truthfully, the effects alone don’t even come close to rectifying what are the film’s many, many other shortcomings, distinguishing ‘Beneath’ from other films within the genre solely on how moronic and tiresome of a horror/thriller it is, paling in comparison to Fessenden’s other low-budget efforts. Final Rating: low 2/10.

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Skyline (2010) – Film Review

Spawning multiple direct-to-streaming sequels despite its discouraging box-office return, 2010’s ‘Skyline’ is, at best, a middling sci-fi-action blockbuster. Offering undeniable evidence that impressive visual effects alone can’t overcome a predictable storyline, cliché dialogue and vapid characters, with much of: ‘Skyline’s runtime being dedicated to tedious indoor melodrama rather than the potentially exhilarating extraterrestrial invasion occurring just outside, ultimately making for a science fiction flick with few original ideas and very limited scope.

Plot Summary: In the wake of an unexpected pregnancy, ‘Elaine’ and her boyfriend: ‘Jarrod’ travel to Los Angeles to convene with their old friend, now-successful entrepreneur: ‘Terry,’ for a party-filled weekend getaway. But the morning after their arrival, a cluster of strange lights begin to descend over the city, drawing residents outside like moths to a flame as an extraterrestrial force threatens to wipe the entire human population off the face of the planet…

Predominantly visual effects artists, directors Colin and Greg Strause (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) financed ‘Skyline’ almost entirely by themselves without the assistance of any major production company, with filming only costing around £372,000, while the visual effects cost an additional £742,000. However, whilst it is commendable what The Brothers Strause achieved on such a low-budget for a blockbuster-level film, ‘Skyline’ eschews a creditable screenplay in order to focus purely on boundless CG spectacle. That is when the film doesn’t just consist of the characters hiding away in ‘Terry’s penthouse, peeping through his conveniently installed telescope to observe the chaos transpiring on the streets below, which, while at first, may sound like an interesting way to experience an extraterrestrial incursion, in execution, is rather dull due to a severe lack of tension, an issue that the later sequels: ‘Beyond Skyline’ and ‘Skylines’ did somewhat rectify.

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters, as even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas alike, the main group of individuals are just no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feel incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable, even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as genuine civilians, as the characters never contemplate sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force face-to-face. Instead, they simply hunker down and use what little knowledge they obtain to their advantage.

When it comes to visuals, Michael Watson’s cinematography fulfils its purpose in showcasing the scale of the invasion across the world, but beyond that, the camerawork doesn’t get any more imaginative, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups, never attempting the utilise the claustrophobic penthouse setting (which, in reality, was part of co-director Greg Stause’s condo building) to its full effect. Another element that spoils the handful of pleasant visuals ‘Skyline’ has its use of blue lighting, as although the abnormal blue lights seen throughout the film are a crucial plot component (being the source that draws civilians outside before they are abducted), their constant usage does result in the film having a hefty over-reliance on vexing lens flares, an issue that even extends to the captions/credits.

A mix of both electronic and orchestral tracks, the original score by Matthew Margeson, unfortunately, has quite the shortage of memorability, with simplistic tracks like ‘The Escape,’ ‘They’re Not Dead’ and ‘Arrival’ being nothing but unremarkable. With that said, credit has to be given that the computerised segments of the score do produce an eerie alien-like sound. And whilst on the topic of audio, the film’s sound design is serviceable though nothing spectacular, with the aliens having a daunting set of screeches and grunts.

Featuring over one thousand visual effects shots, ‘Skyline’s main selling point is unmistakably its CG effects and subsequent action sequences, which are actually few and far between due to a large majority of the narrative taking place within one location. Luckily, the rare moments of excitement we do receive don’t squander the extraterrestrial force, from the oily, cephalopod-like ‘Harvesters,’ who possess the ability to purloin and utilise the brains of different species to revitalise themselves, to the towering brutes known as ‘Tankers,’ who use their immense size and strength to tear through buildings, the film’s hyper-advanced extraterrestrials are given some much-needed variety between their designs. Most of the spaceships were even designed from the basis of low-altitude clouds ranging from Stratocumulus to Cumulus, and are all brought to life through some solid CGI, especially when they are seen swallowing masses of the population in one of the film’s most striking shots.

In short, whilst the broad premise of: ‘Skyline’ has promise, the resulting film is fairly predictable. Not only because of its numerous faults, but because the film was fighting a losing battle right from its inception, with nearly every possible idea relating to the concept of an extraterrestrial invasion already being seen. From the original: ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1953, all the way up to the patriotic all-American blockbuster: ‘Independence Day’ in 1996, it’s an onerous task to fabricate new ways of writing an alien intrusion, further proved by the countless other extraterrestrial occupation stories that have freshly emerged. Final Rating: 4/10.

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Cargo (2017) – Film Review

Based on the short film of the same name, which went on to be an online sensation following its release in 2013, garnering over thirteen million views on YouTube alone. ‘Cargo’ takes a refreshingly character-driven approach to the post-apocalyptic genre, differentiating itself from other films featuring flesh-devouring monstrosities through its secluded setting and Martin Freeman’s terrific lead performance. A combination that will surely satisfy most zombie fanatics even if the genre’s more mainstream crowd could potentially be disappointed at the exclusion of decaying hordes of the undead, a true sense of dread and a lack of extravagant gore.

Plot Summary: After an epidemic spreads across Australia morphing humanity into flesh-eating monsters, ‘Andy,’ along with his wife: ‘Kay’ and infant daughter: ‘Rosie,’ attempt to escape the Outback via the river, making their way to a presumably secure military base. But when the trio stumbles upon an abandoned yacht, ‘Kay’ is bitten while searching for supplies, soon passing the virus onto her husband. Now, with his time running short, ‘Andy’ has one mission: find a new home for his daughter…

Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, ‘Cargo’ is not only Howling and Ramke’s first feature-length film, but is also Australia’s first-ever production to be spotlighted as a Netflix Original, releasing globally on the streaming service in 2017. And although Netflix has ventured into the post-apocalyptic genre before with projects like ‘Ravenous’ and ‘Z Nation,’ both Howling and Ramke wanted ‘Cargo’ to be more than just a straight-forward story of survival, subsequently leading the pair to intertwine social commentary into the story relating to everything from environmental fracking to the exploitation of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. But, in my opinion, the best thing about ‘Cargo’ is its central concept, as the idea of a father having only forty-eight-hours to find a new life for his child is a plot enriched with dramatic potential, with a nocuous outbreak providing the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the qualities one would look for in a guardian during such a crisis.

Speaking of the protagonist, Martin Freeman leads the cast brilliantly as ‘Andy,’ portraying an affectionate father/husband who is determined to protect his family at all costs, an intention which, whilst honourable, often lands him and his loved ones in an even worse spot, as ‘Andy’ refuses to accept when he is out of time. Freeman’s young co-star, Simone Landers, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite as well, as her frail performance frequently results in poignant scenes feeling less sincere. However, ‘Thoomi’ herself is still an intriguing character, with her subplot, focusing on the demise of her father and the survival of a nearby native tribe, providing a vastly different perspective on the epidemic when compared to ‘Andy’s point of view.

Utilising the vegetation-splotched, sun-parched rural land of the Australian Outback flawlessly, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is both varied and visually interesting. Even if, in reality, the Australian wilderness where ‘Cargo’ was shot threw everything it had at the production crew, with South Australia experiencing what was supposedly its worst weather in a century, with floods, power blackouts, torrential downpours and even a miniature cyclone all occurring over the five weeks of production. Yet miraculously, the crew didn’t lose even a single day’s worth of filming, very fortunate considering that the remote setting is a crucial player in the film’s identity, with its harsh and unforgiving nature hurling countless obstacles at our characters, whilst at the same time, offering them a means to survive.

Managed by four different composers, including Michael Hohnen, Daniel Rankine, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu. The original score for: ‘Cargo’ greatly strengthens each scene’s emotional significance, almost as if the score is applying a proverbial highlighter to certain moments, with sombre, tenuous tracks such as: ‘The Grave’ and ‘Goodbye’ flourishingly pulling at the audience’s heartstrings more times than one.

Taking an alternate route to avoid comparisons to zombie designs of the 1970s, seen in classic horror films like ‘Rabid’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ‘Cargo’ strays away from many of the usual clichés associated with the undead, centring its zombie design around an orange pus-like substance that oozes from the infected’s facial orifices, rather than the bleeding open wounds the living dead are commonly known for. This distinction is further emphasised through what we see of their behaviour, as the infected are presented as mindless animals more than they are man-eating monsters, requiring dark/damp areas to incubate during the daytime, before feasting on whatever wildlife they can find once night falls, reminding the audience that what they are witnessing is a viral infection, hence why the infected are even nicknamed: ‘Virals.’

On the whole, even if ‘Cargo’s story could’ve been executed in a more effective fashion with a motley of improvements, I feel ‘Cargo’ is still a creditable entry into the realm of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Being a zombie film with soul and pathos, which, in turn, makes the living dead formidable once again, not because of jump-scares or excessive bloodshed, but becuase of the film’s biggest drawcard; its sheer humanity. Telling a story that largely revolves around the notion of human determination, seeing how far an individual will go to protect another even in the bleakest of circumstances. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Hush (2016) – Film Review

Exceptionally gripping in the face of its simplicity, ‘Hush,’ released in 2016, navigates the bloody waters of the home invasion subgenre to tremendous results. With only five characters and a single location to speak of, the performances and sound design of: ‘Hush’ are both key in the film’s goal of establishing a disquieting tone, captivating its audience while simultaneously making them dread that the story they are witnessing on-screen could realistically transpire in the most peaceful of surroundings. Certifying ‘Hush’ as a concise and well-executed horror/thriller despite the film’s continuous cat-and-mouse pursuits growing a little tiresome by its third act.

Plot Summary: When ‘Maddie,’ a deaf and mute author, moves to a secluded woodland house with the hopes of living a peaceful, solitary life as she writes her second novel, she soon finds her isolated home the target of a deranged masked killer…

Co-written, directed and even edited by Mike Flanagan, this talented director has been the face of modern horror for many years now, crafting chilling and original genre pieces such as: ‘Oculus,’ ‘Before I Wake’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ in addition to adapting much of Steven King’s iconic catalogue of literature with ‘Gerald’s Game’ and ‘Doctor Sleep.’ ‘Hush,’ however, was one of the director’s earlier films, with Flanagan conceiving the storyline whilst on a dinner date with his co-writer/leading actress Kate Siegel in 2014, not long before the pair married in 2016. To get a better understanding of the film, Siegel and Flanagan even role-played each scene in their house before writing them into the screenplay, enabling them to better envision how the characters would react in the face of danger, a method that I feel ultimately paid-off.

Although the lead role of: ‘Hush’ seems tailor-made for a hearing-impaired actress, Kate Siegel portrays ‘Maddie’ divinely as a quick-witted heroine who keeps the audience on her side at all times, constantly thinking on her feet, overcoming a few of the obstacles that come with her disability, as well as using her hearing impairment to her advantage when possible. John Gallagher Jr. is just as stellar as the mysteriously motivated antagonist; a character only ever known as ‘The Masked Man.’ Who, throughout the film, we learn seems to enjoy playing mind games with his victims, receiving some kind of fetishistic pleasure from toying with those he’s about to slaughter. In many ways, ‘The Masked Man’ shares similarities to the horror icon: ‘Michael Myers,’ with his motivation for killing never being stated and his costume consisting primarily of an unadorned white mask, which only adds to the character’s intrigue.

Whilst a substantial portion of the cinematography by James Kniest is hand-held, removing the possibility of: ‘Hush’ being one of Mike Flanagan’s most visually impressive films. The fluidity of: ‘Hush’s camerawork does allow the audience to follow ‘Maddie’ as she wanders through her contemporary home, the camera tracking her every movement as she enters/exits various rooms on impulse. However, a major shortcoming of the film’s visuals is certainly it’s lighting, as due to all of the narrative taking place at night, it makes sense that ‘Hush’ would be quite gloomy lighting-wise, yet most shots are seemingly over-lit considering the characters are supposed to be in a dense woodland area in the dead of night.

At times peaceful, at times aggressive, the original score for: ‘Hush,’ composed by The Newton Brothers, greatly enhances the story at many points, as tracks like ‘Maddie,’ ‘Intruder,’ ‘Against the Glass’ and ‘Crossbow’ are all incredibly atmospheric. And even if the score lacks a predominant track that could be regarded as the film’s theme in years to come, ‘Hush’s soundtrack still more than serves its purpose, especially when taking into account the film’s reliance on sound as opposed to a non-diegetic score.

Since the protagonist of: ‘Hush’ is both deaf and mute, the film contains less than fifteen minutes of dialogue, meaning, with a runtime of around eighty-two minutes, ‘Hush’ has more than seventy minutes of screen-time without a single word spoken. This set-up provides Mike Flanagan with a perfect opportunity to play with sound in creative ways, removing audio entirely (with the exception of an ultrasound machine) to put the audience into ‘Maddie’s shoes and deliver a sudden jolt when appropriate, avoiding the common horror cliché of having nonsensical, ear-piercing jump-scares for no apparent reason. Through the sound design, we also learn more regarding ‘Maddie’s character, as she hears the echoing voice of her deceased mother whispering to her, a voice that usually helps her conjure-up endings for her novels, but, in this case, layouts her options on how to approach her current situation.

To conclude, ‘Hush’ is a sharp, violent and finely-tuned horror/thriller that goes down familiar paths yet with flair and skill, not quite reinventing the wheel, but proving that the genres it’s drawing from still have firm legs. From ‘The Masked Man’ toying with ‘Maddie’ as he steals her phone and sends pictures to her laptop, to ‘Maddie’ rapidly locking all of her windows and doors before the killer can enter, ‘Hush’ is truly an engrossing story with an excess of suspenseful moments, its sound design only adding to this appeal as the film frequently gets closer to becoming a sensory-deprivation experience. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Dredd (2012) – Film Review

A considerably overlooked film when it comes to the sci-fi genre, ‘Dredd,’ written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame, City of Tiny Lights), focuses on said character, whose comic strip in the science fiction anthology series: ‘2000 AD’ was one of the longest-running in the magazine’s history, being featured since it’s second issue in 1977. Merging futurism with law enforcement, ‘Dredd’ and his fellow ‘Judges’ are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot, and this modern film adaptation, fuelled by much of the same bombastic violence and sci-fi imagery, does a remarkable job of capturing its source material’s gritty spirit.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future on the American East Coast, lies the overpopulated and crime-ridden metropolis known as ‘Mega-City One,’ where police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. Within this city, one of these officers, the resolute: ‘Judge Dredd,’ is assigned to assess rookie: ‘Cassandra Anderson’ as the two are ordered to reach the top of an apartment complex and stop ‘Ma-Ma’ and her clan from manufacturing and distributing narcotics. But when the pair enter the complex, they find themselves ensnared as ‘Ma-Ma’ locks down the building, forcing ‘Dredd’ and his newfangled partner to fight their way out, one level at a time…

Technically a reboot following the character’s first cinematic interpretation with 1995’s ‘Judge Dredd,’ which featured Sylvester Stallone as the titular character. ‘Dredd’ is a far more faithful adaption, as while Stallone may have looked the part, it was clear that the film itself thoroughly misunderstood the source material. ‘Dredd,’ however, immediately thrusts its audience into a riveting and intense story, which considering how self-contained it is, also manages to fit a surprising amount of world-building in-between, hinting towards the many other districts of: ‘Mega-City One’ we could’ve seen should ‘Dredd’ have been a box-office success rather than the commercial disappointment it sadly was, earning a little over £41 million on a budget of £45 million.

Speaking only when necessary and never giving even the slightest hint of emotion, Karl Urban portrays the film’s protagonist: ‘Judge Dredd’ with extreme accuracy. Displaying Urban’s clear understanding of the role as ‘Dredd,’ just as he does in the comic strips, never breaks or goes through a character-arc, but instead, is just an incorruptible officer with no time for low-life criminals, and Urban nails this portrayal, even with half his head being obscured by a helmet for the entirety of the runtime. ‘Dredd’s partner: ‘Cassandra Anderson,’ portrayed by Olivia Thirlby, is also a compelling character, demonstrating a level of skill far below her superior, yet possessing psychic abilities which make her too valuable to dismiss. Lastly, there is ‘Ma-Ma,’ the film’s antagonist who was originally written as an elderly woman before Lena Headey convinced Alex Garland to make her a middle-aged misandrist. And although there isn’t the same depth to her character as ‘Dredd’ or his rookie partner, ‘Ma-Ma’ is still a convincing felon, as Headey portrays a ruthless individual living in an equally ruthless world.

Playing into the idea of this post-apocalyptic world being in constant disarray, the ‘Dredd’s grimy set-design along with its murky brown colour palette present ‘Mega-City One’ (a.k.a. Johannesburg with some CG enhancements) as a rundown metropolis with similarly rundown technology, as the filthy hallways of the apartment complex: ‘Peach Trees’ are continuously permeated with litter and spraypainted walls. Moreover, the film is given a great sense of style through the energetic camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle and smooth integration of CG effects, which outside of a few scenes where the film fully indulges in graphic violence by having blood flung towards the camera, have aged admirably.

As you’d expect from a pessimistic sci-fi film, the original score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is both rousing and brooding, with tracks such as: ‘Mega-City One’ and ‘You Look Ready’ all perfectly accompanying what’s on-screen through their heady mix of guitar riffs and thumping electronic beats. Making for a score that even with twenty-two distinct tracks, has no real filler, as every piece flawlessly correlates with the film’s fast-paced action.

Continuing to be true to the original comic strip, ‘Dredd’s primary form of transportation; the ‘Lawmaster’ motorcycle, is faithfully recreated for the film, as the production team created a series of functional bikes for filming. They achieved this by having the chassis of normal bikes extended and then adding custom fairings, as well as fitting the bikes with larger tires so they could remain operable. In a similar sense, ‘Dredd’s iconic outfit is also recreated, only being modified slightly to give the suit a sleeker, more modernised look.

In summary, though many may see this sci-fi action-thriller as pure style-over-substance and nothing else, ‘Dredd’ is a film deeply committed to the genres it’s trying to represent. With thrilling action sequences, substantial world-building and impressive visual effects all rooted in deadpan humour, ‘Dredd’ is a more than entertaining ride. And in a world full of compromised adaptations, this film is something of a triumph, as ‘Dredd’ avoids the common misstep adaptations tend to take where the final product ends-up bearing little resemblance to its source material aside from the title, as self-indulgent screenwriters/directors make whatever changes they desire without much thought or consideration. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Legend (2015) – Film Review

Recognised as some of the most notorious gangsters in British history, Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Kray and Reginald ‘Reggie’ Kray were identical twin brothers and the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in the East End of London during the 1960s. With the help of their gang, known as The Firm, the Krays were involved in numerous murders, armed robberies, protection rackets, arsons and assaults. And, in 1965, as West End nightclub owners, the Krays even mingled with politicians and prominent entertainers, subsequently becoming ’60s icons themselves before both brothers were ultimately arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1967. Therefore, even if the twin crimelords were convicted murderers, their rise to power was ripe for a cinematic interpretation, and 2015’s ‘Legend’ more than succeeds in converting the brothers’ riotous downfall into an enthralling biopic, thanks largely to Tom Hardy’s mesmerising dual performance.

Plot Summary: Identical twins; Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Kray and Reginald ‘Reggie’ Kray, have risen through the ranks of the criminal underworld in 1960s London, with Ronnie advancing the family business through violence and intimidation, while Reggie struggles to go legitimate with his girlfriend, Frances Shea. But with Detective Superintendent Leonard Read hot on their heels, Ronnie’s unpredictable tendencies along with the slow disintegration of Reggie’s relationship threaten to bring the brothers’ criminal empire tumbling to the ground…

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale, Man on Fire), ‘Legend’ is partly an adaptation of the true-crime book: ‘The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Krays Twins’ by John Pearson. I say ‘partly’ as the film (unlike the book) begins well into the Kray’s criminal career, steering clear of the twins’ East End childhood, their early days as boxers, or their time spent behind bars during National Service. Even the pairs’ beloved mum, Violet Lee Kray, is barely glimpsed outside of one or two scenes, seemingly unaware of her boys’ violent actions. And whilst this could be seen as a positive, as ‘Legend’ doesn’t waste any of its runtime on frivolous flashbacks to the twins’ adolescence, it could also be seen as a negative, as I feel witnessing the Kray’s childhood would’ve provided a clear view of their personalities before their rampant path of butchery began.

Taking on dual roles for the film, Tom Hardy had thirty-five filming days in which he had to portray both brothers, this meant that Hardy would have to film scenes as the twin who had the most dialogue first, then return to hair and make-up to be transformed into the opposing twin. Originally, Hardy was only offered the role of Reggie, but Brian Helgeland was persuaded to let Hardy tackle the role of Ronnie as well, and I’d say this was for the best, as Tom Hardy taking on both roles not only adheres to the idea of the Krays being identical twins, but truly allows him to display his full acting range, constantly upstaging himself as he switches from brother-to-brother. The rest of the cast of Emily Browning, Taron Egerton, Paul Anderson, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston are also marvellous in their various roles, whether that’s in pursuit or service of the Krays.

Exceedingly lavish in its presentation, ‘Legend’ often possesses the tone of an American gangster epic like ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’ despite being so distinctly British, contrasting its bloodletting and depravity with elegant shots from cinematographer Dick Pope, in addition to plenty of wonderful set-dressing as the film was shot almost entirely on-location, with very few sets being used. The camerawork even allows for a few long-takes, with Reggie and Frances’ first evening out together being one continuous five-minute and forty-second shot.

When it comes to the original score by Carter Burwell, tracks such as: ‘Legend,’ ‘Elegy for Frances’ and ‘Your Race is Run’ all effectively serve their purpose as part of the narrative. The main focus of: ‘Legend’s soundtrack, however, is the film’s long list of recognisable songs, which further help cement the story within the 1960s time-period. And whoever compiled this soundtrack clearly has a great deal of expertise, not only in selecting songs that one would hope to hear from a film set in the swinging sixties like ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Cissy Strut,’ but equally in selecting long-forgotten gems.

From costumes to vehicles to props, the production design throughout ‘Legend’ is also nothing short of exceptional, to the extent where Ronnie and Reggie’s tailored suits are almost indistinguishable from the ones the twins wore in real-life. Additionally, the utilisation of digital compositing and body doubles for whenever two versions of Tom Hardy are required on-screen at one time rarely have a faulty moment, auspiciously tricking the audience at multiple points.

In conclusion, while most will agree that any glorification of real-world criminals is questionable, with ‘Legend’ often having a mythologist and, at times, even romanticised approach to its low-life protagonists, the film is a well-crafted biopic, nonetheless. Through its retro style, brilliant production design and copious comedic moments, ‘Legend’ is a solid crime-drama even in spite of its occasionally overblown scenes or on-the-nose song choices, such as: ‘Chapel of Love’ for Reggie and Frances’ wedding. But the main reason to see ‘Legend’ is unquestionably the spectacular dual performance from Tom Hardy, who confidently steals every scene he’s in. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Terrifier (2016) – Film Review

Grisly, taut and seasonally atmospheric, ‘Terrifier,’ released in 2016, aims to pay homage to the inexpensive slasher flicks of the 1980s, relishing in the same simplistic approach and over-the-top gore that classic horrors like ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Blood Harvest’ specialised in. And while the film does admittedly fall prey to many of the usual limitations low-budget horrors tend to have, ‘Terrifier’ is preserved through a genuinely terrifying performance from David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ in addition to plenty of fantastically gruesome effects and a willingness from writer-director Damien Leone (All Hallows’ Eve, Frankenstein vs. The Mummy) to push on-screen violence to its limit.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, ‘Tara Heyes’ and her best friend: ‘Dawn,’ find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as they become the unfortunate targets of: ‘Art the Clown,’ a demented serial killer with a morbid sense of humour…

With coulrophobia (the name given to the fear of clowns) being one of the most common phobias in the world, it makes sense that the horror genre would try to capitalise on this widespread fear of individuals with white face paint and oversized shoes. And if there’s one area ‘Terrifier’ more than thrives in, it’s fully realising this common phobia, as ‘Art the Clown’ is consistently frightening, as the film jumps from moments of complete silence as ‘Art’ stares down his victims, to violent murders where the sadistic clown’s black and white costume is showered with blood. ‘Terrifier’ isn’t actually ‘Art the Clown’s first appearance though, as Damien Leone first introduced the character in his second short film, which not only shared the ‘Terrifier’ title, but is essentially the same story just condensed into a brief twenty-minute runtime.

Even though the conceited: ‘Dawn,’ somewhat sensible: ‘Tara,’ and loyal sister: ‘Victoria Heyes,’ portrayed by Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and Samantha Scaffidi, respectively, all serve an important purpose within the narrative. The characters themselves never attain anything beyond being generic slasher victims, and although each of the actress’ screams of terror sound as suitably realistic as a director could hope for, the delivery of some lines (particularly from the supporting cast) can feel clunky. But the true star of the film is undoubtedly David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ as Thornton stays in character ceaselessly as the psychotic murderer, portraying ‘Art’ as a fun-loving mime whose killings involve a combination of predatory sadism and joyful glee. So much so, that ‘Art’ will make many viewers nervous purely due to his unpredictability, as the character’s manic actions make it almost impossible to predict what he’ll do next.

On a technical level, ‘Terrifier’ is top-notch considering its thin budget, as whilst the cinematography by George Steuber is far from groundbreaking, the film has a reasonable amount of creative shots, the majority of which are enhanced by the film’s highly saturated colour palette, thin layer of granularity, and scenes lit primarily by natural light, truly giving the film a low-budget ’80s appeal. And, as mentioned previously, Terrifier’ does not hold back when it comes to brutality and depravity, certifying the film as one, not for the faint of heart, as the gore effects are gut-churning and grotesque with the amount of work and detail that has gone into each effect being more than deserving of applause, especially when once again acknowledging the film’s budget, which is estimated to have been around £73,000.

The original score by Paul Wiley is a triumphant blend of 2010 and 1980s horror scores, with tracks such as: ‘In Pieces’ and ‘Clown Car’ being daunting and metallic-sounding similar to many modern horror scores, whereas tracks like ‘Kill Horn’ and the film’s main theme, simply titled: ‘Terrifier Theme,’ are reminiscent of the original: ‘Halloween’ score in more ways than one, which by no means a poor comparison when it comes to unnerving soundtracks.

These connections to past genre films continue further into the film’s visuals, as director Damien Leone inserts many explicit nods and visual tributes to everything from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Hostel’ to everything in-between. And whilst some may not like when a film relies so heavily on pastiche, it never feels overdone in ‘Terrifier,’ as the film strikes a satisfying balance between throwbacks and unique ideas, occasionally playing with the conventions of slashers by adding some twists to the killer and final girl dynamic, which will most definitely catch some viewers off-guard.

In short, ‘Terrifier’ has plenty of entertainment value should you fit into the film’s principal audience, as this modern slasher is an unabashed reminder of the bloodthirsty horror films that populated the 1980s, a.k.a. the kind of nasty flicks that were banned during the video-nasty era. The film has its issue, undeniably, most notably with its shortage of interesting characters and often oversimplified story. But ‘Terrifier’ does make the most of its foreboding atmosphere and unsettling killer, and it quickly becomes clear while watching the film that Damien Leone wants ‘Art the Clown’ to join the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon in the near future, which I think is more than feasible depending on how the horror community perceive the film as a whole. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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Hellraiser (1987) – Film Review

Written, directed and based on the novella: ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker (Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions), 1987’s ‘Hellraiser’ is truly a fiendishly unique vision. Offering a discomfiting and sadistically smart alternative to mindless gore, this classic horror rarely has a tiresome moment, utilising its outstanding practical effects and onslaught of intriguing ideas to great effect, up to the point where the film sequentially became a victim of its own success, being so influential that it not only spawned a decades’ worth of poor imitations, but even its own series of continuously disappointing sequels. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that the original: ‘Hellraiser’ is an unforgettable excursion into a netherworld of monsters, murder and disloyalty.

Plot Summary: When ‘Kirsty’s father: ‘Larry’ and stepmother: ‘Julia,’ move into ‘Larry’s childhood home, ‘Julia’ discovers the newly resurrected, partially-formed body of her brother-in-law: ‘Frank,’ a sexual deviant who lost his physical form after solving a supernatural puzzle box which summons a group of multi-dimensional demon sadists known as ‘The Cenobites.’ Now, to reclaim his body, ‘Frank’ convinces ‘Julia,’ his one-time lover, to lure unsuspecting men back to the house so he can use their blood to revitalise himself and escape the clutches of the demonic beings pursuing him…

One of the central concepts of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise; a seemingly innocuous puzzle box that is, in reality, a gateway to Hell, has its basis in the urban legend of: ‘The Devil’s Toy Box,’ which concerns a six-sided cube constructed of inward-facing mirrors. According to the legend, individuals who enter the structure will undergo disturbing phenomena that will simultaneously grant them a revelatory experience and permanently warp their mind. This story has heavy ties to the idea of insanity, which is certainly prevalent throughout ‘Hellraiser,’ as the film similar to the rest of Clive Barker’s work, is very surreal in nature. However, unlike the rest of Barker’s work, the budget for: ‘Hellraiser’ was astonishingly low at around £730,000. Whilst this was most likely due to Barker’s lack of filmmaking experience (only having directed two short films at the time), ‘Hellrasier’ quickly earned over £14 million, immediately cementing Barker as a promising writer and director in addition to establishing ‘Hellraiser’ as a series we’d still see years down the line.

The superb cast of Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman and Ashley Laurence all effectively serve their purpose within the narrative, as ‘Hellraiser’ admirably values its characters more than many other horror films, developing each of the family members so they feel both genuine and distinct from one another, ensuring the pivotal plot threads of adultery and ‘Julia’s subsequent guilt remain riveting. Then, of course, there is Doug Bradley as the film’s icon: ‘Pinhead,’ who, despite being kept in the background for a majority of the runtime, gives a solid performance, especially considering ‘Pinhead,’ similar to the rest of: ‘The Cenobites,’ has very limited dialogue and screen-time.

Speaking of iconography, while ‘Hellraiser’ no doubt has its fair share of recognisable shots, much of this iconic imagery isn’t due to the cinematography by Robin Vidgeon, but more so because of the film’s masterful creature, costume, and prop design. As the camerawork itself, although dynamic, often just falls back on conventional close-ups and mid-shots with the occasional zoom or tilt thrown in to further magnify the effects on-screen.

For the original score, Clive Barker originally wanted the experimental electronic music group, Coil, to compose music for the film, but when that notion was rejected, the film’s editor Tony Randel suggested composer Christopher Young as a replacement. And truthfully, I feel this was for the better, as Young’s score perfectly lends itself to the dreamlike, otherwordly tone of the film, with the opening theme: ‘Hellraiser’ being a grand orchestral piece with a dark, fairytale-like undertone, whilst tracks like ‘Resurrection’ and ‘The Lament Configuration’ have an unnerving, almost gothic quality to them.

But it’s undoubtedly the artful designs of: ‘Hellrasier’ that make the film so unique, with the grotesque and somewhat sexual designs of: ‘Pinhead’ and the other ‘Cenobites’ being particularly striking, as Clive Barker drew inspiration for their diverse looks from punk fashion, catholicism, and visits he took to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam. Interestingly, in spite of the character’s reputation, in the novella, ‘Pinhead’ is present but is not the lead ‘Cenobite.’ ‘The Female Cenobite,’ ‘The Chatterer’ and ‘The Engineer’ all have more prominent roles, but as a result of the visually impressive yet extremely restrictive prosthetic make-up for the respective characters, ‘Pinhead’ took point on account of Doug Bradley’s prosthetics allowing for the most facial movement, promptly resulting in ‘Pinhead’ becoming the face of the franchise.

To conclude, ‘Hellraiser’ is truly one of the most gruesome, indelible and captivating horror films of the 1980s. And even though it’ll no longer leave audiences chilled to the bone just as it did way back when, ‘Hellraiser’ is still an exceptionally eerie slice of ’80s horror, and its importance in the history of cinema can’t be discredited. As not only did the film force ostentatious critics to accept that the horror genre could have real artistic weight, but it also pushed the boundaries of practical effects, with many of its effects even outshining today’s CG efforts. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

An inversion of the iconic ‘Superman’ origin story, ‘Brightburn,’ released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, primarily as a result of its sketchy screenplay and often botched sense of dread, ‘Brightburn’ crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres.

Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, ‘Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm. But, years later, as ‘Brandon’ nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading ‘Tori’ and her husband: ‘Kyle’ to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…

Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively, ‘Brightburn’ certainly succeeds in its main goal, setting-up an almost identical scenario to ‘Superman’s origin before then taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as ‘Brightburn’ actually shares many similarities to the ‘Superman’ comics beyond just its story. From ‘Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as: ‘Clark Kent,’ ‘Peter Parker’ and ‘Bruce Banner,’ to the story taking place in Kansas, the same state where ‘Kal-El’ touched down and later grew-up to become ‘Superman.’ The film’s connections to the ‘Man of Steel’ are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as ‘Brandon’ wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of: ‘Superman’s classic outfit. Still, all of this association doesn’t fix what is ‘Brightburn’s most predominant problem; its runtime. As the plot is squeezed into a very brief ninety-one-minutes, meaning the film wastes no time in jumping straight into ‘Brandon’ discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side, thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene-after-scene of what seem like trailer-made moments.

When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a curse. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, ‘Tori’ and ‘Kyle’ have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is ‘Brandon Breyer’ himself portrayed by young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation. As once ‘Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.

Aside from some nice visual nods to further associate itself with ‘Superman,’ including a sweeping rural landscape and a farmhouse interchangeable with that of: ‘Clark Kent’s. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, often just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most superhero blockbusters.

Moreover, despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for: ‘Brightburn,’ composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting-out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising ‘Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design, as the more ‘Brandon’ falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking a foreign alien language.

Unfortunately, out of the two genres ‘Brightburn’ is attempting to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things, as ‘Brightburn’ lazily relies on clichéd scares like flickering lights and twitching curtains. Meaning it’s a rarity that the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways ‘Brandon’ disposes of his victims.

In conclusion, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, ‘Brightburn’ is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. And, as such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving ‘Brightburn’ a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was conceived as. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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