Thursday, March 31, 2011

these are a few of my favorite blogs ...

There are so many wonderful blogs out there for the movie buff. DVD Beaver may at first sight seem just a nice compendium for searching which DVD's are available for sale, but once you start to dig a little deeper, you might not be able to stop. One discovery leads to another. Not only are there links to hard-to-find films, but there are synopses, reviews, original posters and DVD covers, plus all sorts of technical info (DVD and Blu-ray specs, extras), too. My favorite feature — wonderful images from great movies:

Orson Welles in Prince of Foxes

Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor

Colin Farrell in The New World

Johnny Depp in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

miss marple is hotter than you think

Article first published as Miss Marple Is Hotter Than You Think on Blogcritics.

It's partly a tribute to the strength of Agatha Christie's characters and stories that Hollywood and its equivalents keep churning out new versions every few years. David Suchet has got a lock on the inimitable Hercule Poirot. Thank goodness for that. He is such a perfect Poirot in every way that I am not able to contemplate someone else trying to step into the Belgian detective's shiny tight patent leather shoes.

Miss Marple, for some reason, has never been as easy to capture. Maybe because the character's description by Christie is as fluffy as the shawls Marple is always knitting. Poirot is specific. In fact he has so many quirks and eccentricities that Christie grew to loathe being forever saddled with him while the public loved him. Miss Marple, apart from being elderly and smart and more than a bit of a snoop doesn't have many other descriptors except blue eyes and white hair. She has been open to interpretation to readers — plug in your favorite little old lady stereotype and add a pink or blue wooly shawl.

Miss Marple has also been open to interpretation by a variety of actresses. Margaret Rutherford made a series of four B&W films in the 1960s. They are very enjoyable and silly comedies, but as any Christie devotee will tell you, they aren't Miss Marple.

Miss Marple saw a surge of popularity in the 1980s. Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack'd (1980) is a good attempt. I enjoy her version of the character, but I think she found a better fit for her vigorous physicality in Jessica Fletcher. Helen Hayes was my perfect physical idea of Miss Marple. She's petite and fluffy and wily. She was in two American made-for-TV movies in the mid-80s. They lack the British locale and polish, but are fun to watch.

Joan Hickson is to me the ultimate Miss Marple, as Suchet is the ultimate Poirot. She may be the least "fluffy" of the portrayers, but she gets everything else very, very right. From 1984 to 1992 she played Marple in 12 movies.

From 2004-2010 creators of the latest Marple series tried to sex up the stories and even Miss Marple herself. They are often confusing to watch, as so much of the original stories have been changed. Geraldine McEwan is a good actress, but her Miss Marple is just creepy to me. Julia McKenzie took over the role after McEwan, a bit more in the manner of Hickson's Marple, but the dramatizations of the stories are still pretty awful. Some of my favorite Christie novels like Towards Zero suddenly have Marple plunked in the middle of them where she doesn't belong. If you love Miss Marple, I'd skip these and find the Hickson versions on DVD.

Apparently these latest Marples weren't deemed sexy enough, because the latest news is that yet another Marple franchise is in the works, this time starring ... Jennifer Garner. The mind boggles. Obviously all previous incarnations of white hair and knitted baby items will have to be tossed out. As a huge Christie fan I should be shaking my head in disgust or outrage, right? Somehow it just makes me laugh and wonder if it might be fun to watch.

The idea is so completely off-the-wall that it might even work. Why the folks behind this production are bothering to trade on the Marple name at all is confusing, but maybe it will provide them with some decent plots to pull from, at the very least. Garner is also producing the film. I wish it had been scaled down to be a TV series instead of a feature film, as that seems to be where this actress shines. Can Garner pull a Robert Downey and mess with a beloved character and still be great? Only time will tell. But somehow, I suspect, the resilient Miss Marple will weather this latest incarnation and turn up again, in another guise, in a year or so.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

mildred pierce

Article first published as Television Review: Mildred Pierce (2011) on Blogcritics.

The 5-part mini-series Mildred Pierce started Sunday on HBO, with the first two episodes airing back-to-back. The first episode and its star Kate Winslet start off quietly, but the tension and drama builds steadily. Winslet is strong and surprising as Mildred, a woman who has a core of iron that surprises everyone around her, sometimes including herself. She also has a blind spot — devotion to her older daughter Veda. She is in an unfulfilling marriage and it is clear that she is pouring all her unresolved hopes and dreams into her older daughter, as younger daughter ray is too young and possibly too much like her father to gain her focus.

Mildred's philandering husband Bert, played by Brían F. O'Byrne takes off, and she is left to support herself and their two daughters. Melissa Leo as a friendly neighbor with some not-so-savory advice suggests she might start marketing herself as a kept woman. When Wally (James LeGros), a business associate of her husband's, offers to take her out Lucy tells her to not let him buy her dinner but to cook for him, sleep with him, so he owes her. Mildred does just that — hard realty and Mildred's response to it was glossed over in the film noir Joan Crawford version. In fact this telling of the story, apart from the basic plot structure is so different in every way that if I had ever intended to compare the two versions that pretty much disappeared by the end of the first scene.

Director and co-writer Todd Haynes is always good at period (Far from Heaven). The colors in Mildred Pierce — muted pinks and greens and browns and yellows — can't hide all of the passion and frustration below the surface. Winslet is wonderful as the grass widow (a woman with an absent husband) who at first can't imagine becoming a waitress to support her daughters because she knows that they (read Veda) will be ashamed of her.

But as a woman in an employment office who is trying to help her get a job tells her, "Get over it." It's 1931, the height of the Depression. There are no jobs anywhere, but she can't bring herself to take the offered job as housekeeper to a rich woman who in their brief interview familiarly calls her Mildred when she insists on being addressed ad "Mrs. Pierce." Mildred has a crisis of conscious after refusing the job. When an opportunity presents itself while she is eating at a diner she offers herself up as a waitress and is hired on the spot. Waitress Ida (Mare Winningham) quickly sizes her up as unsuitable, but helps her get started. She is a tough broad, but she trains her well and you know they will become best buds soon enough.

In Part 2 errant husband Bert shows up again, delighting the kids and ticking-off Mildred, who takes the key to the car away from him. When he protests she tells him, "I got a job. Somebody had to." It's probably her first real feeling of power since he left.

We see her back at the diner, or "hash house" as Mildred calls it. She is already an old hand at the job. male customers try to pick her up and complain about the lousy pie, opening up an avenue for Mildred. She could bake pies for the diner. Of course her pies are a hit and with Ida's help she starts getting not only paid for her pies, but expands her modest "I sold 5 pies last week" to her neighbors to a production line of 35 pies a week for first her restaurant and then another.

But even with her working so hard and making money for piano and swim lessons for Veda her first-born shows herself to be a first-class bitch. Every kid snoops in their mother's stuff out of curiosity, but Veda has been spying on her mother with malicious intent for the purpose of humiliation. She discovers Mildred's uniform and has the housekeeper Mildred has hired to help out wear it and follow her around like a servant. As awful as her behavior is, Veda's snobbery may be the catalyst for Mildred to be brave enough to take the next step. She tells Veda she only took the job as a waitress so she can learn the restaurant business from the ground up. It may come to pass, but it felt like Mildred was improvising on the spot.

She tells Veda, "No matter what I say, no matter what anyone says, never give that up, your way of looking at things." Veda's response is "I can't Mother, It's how I am." Those two statements are the key to both of their characters and the whole story. Mildred does start to study her surroundings — the financial dealings of the owner, the waste of food. She continues to sleep with Wally, getting ready to call in her favor — an investment proposal for a restaurant. Wally does her one better and helps her find a property and get her a divorce.

On her last day as a waitress in walks dashing Monty Beragon to the diner and her life. Guy Pearce plays him with a sort of lazy Errol Flynn-like glamour. They make an instant connection and spend a sex-fueled weekend together, but Mildred's afterglow is cut short after arriving home when she is informed that Ray is in the hospital with a high fever.

[SPOILER ALERT — skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the episode yet.] Anyone familiar with the Joan Crawford film knows what's coming, but that doesn't make the death of younger daughter Ray any less affecting, or Mildred's co-dependent need to share her grief after coming home from the hospital after watching her youngest daughter die any less disturbing when she crawls into bed with sleeping daughter Veda. Mildred's problems and successes are just beginning and it is going to continue to be fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch.
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Monday, March 28, 2011

The medium is not the message

Article first published as The Medium is not the Message on Blogcritics.

I believe that art is 80% intention, 20% posterity's reaction. It doesn't matter what your medium is — oil paint, photography, music, words on a page, dance, clay, film, or even a guest spot on General Hospital — if an artist sets out to make art, that will be the result. Now, whether it ends up being good or bad art is up for (endless) debate. That's the 80%. The opposite end of the spectrum, the 20% part, is how the cognoscenti and the rest of us perceive the work. Cavemen drawing on the walls in Lascaux over 17,000 years ago were most likely trying to entertain themselves, or maybe perform some sort of ritual, but the art world recognizes their efforts as the earliest forms of painting. The beautiful drawings are usually the first slide in art history 101 classes. In his case, the 20% posterity's view trumps intention, as the cavemen aren't around to argue the point.

I've been thinking recently about art films. The performing arts lend themselves more easily to earning cash and public acclaim (or disdain) and just plain awareness than what's happening in the art world. Many more people go to see a movie than go to an art gallery or a play or a concert. But while there is undoubtedly a level of artistry in a movie like Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen, no one is likely to call it art. That wasn't the intention. The filmmakers' aim was to make beaucoup bucks and blow things up — a lot. But a surrealist film like Luis Buñuel's and Salvador Dalí's graphic-for-its-time Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog, 1929) or Jean Cocteau's avant-garde Le Sang d'un Poete (The Blood of A Poet, 1930) or Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 were intended as art from the start. While they may have made some money at the theater (Un Chien Andalou, originally intended for a limited showing in Paris, was so popular with the public that it ended up playing for 8 months), the films were created with artistic, non-Hollywood intentions.

The auteur theory, in which "a director can use the commercial apparatus of film-making in the same way that a writer uses a pen or a painter uses paint and a paintbrush" hinges on talking about movies made with artistic intent. Some of the directors that fit the bill include François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock. Is every one of these filmmaker's movies art? Not by a long shot. But the intent is there in many of their movies, and most would agree that Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), Knife in the Water (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), Manhattan (1979) and Vertigo (1958) qualify. Well, I may have to re-think Allen. He's definitely an auteur, but his attempts to make art don't usually hit the mark for me.

When photography first started to be shown as art in galleries there were many that protested that such a mechanical process could be considered art. Some even maybe a wee bit threatened. Pablo Picasso has been quoted as saying, "I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn." But Picasso survived, and photography became another artistic medium, and cameras another tool, like paintbrushes. What is high art and what isn't has been one of the main debates of the 20th century and has dribbled into the 21st in regard to film.

By writing that "the medium is not the message" I am having a bit of punning fun with the famous quote nugget from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan talked about many aspects of media and culture, art among them, "Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it."  McLuhan believed that the medium (television, advertising etc.) was the thing, not the content it transmitted. One of his famous examples was that the medium of television was powerful, regardless of whether it was showing children's cartoons or violent programs. I'm turning that idea on its head in relation to art and art-making by positing that the medium employed by the artist — whether film, or words, or painting, etc., is irrelevant. What is important is the end product, the art experience. The ideas and feelings taken away by the viewer. If a piece has something to say, and talks in the language of art, no matter what medium was employed, it's art.

Of course if I go on too much longer, I'm at risk of sounding like the "Man in Theatre Line" from Annie Hall. McLuhan also said, "Art is anything you can get away with." Sounds like a Woody Allen line. Allen brought the man, McLuhan, into this wonderful scene in Annie Hall, and just for the sheer brilliance of that bold stroke, gets put back on my art/auteur list.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

the baseball: stunts, scandals, and secrets beneath the stitches

Article first published as Book Review: The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches by Zack Hample on Blogcritics.

If you didn't know what a juiced baseball was before picking up The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches by Zack Hample, you sure will by the time you finish it. Famous ballhawk Zack Hample recounts loads of fun facts and figures about the baseball. The actual ball, not just the sport, in case you were confused about the title. Hample may go on a bit too long about the ins and outs of the history of the manufacture of the balls, down to weight in fractional ounces. But there are so many fun stories interspersed throughout that you can excuse his obsessive need to share the almost moment-by-moment evolution of the major league baseball.

I found quite interesting that the baseball, taken for granted by most fans, except in their desire for a souvenir, has been a constant source of controversy in relation to how games are scored and players are performing. With all the steroids scandals in recent years it was interesting to learn that similar scandals have always plagued the sport — many centered on the actual ball and if it was up to standards.

Hample takes the reader inside the Rawlings Costa Rican baseball production factory — apparently a  top-secret operation. He also relates the interesting story of Albert Spalding, a pitcher in the early days of the baseball (1871), who retired from the sport in 1878 to build his business in sporting goods. He was a ruthless businessman and pretty much created a monopoly to produce the balls and other sporting equipment. The Spalding company bought out every major competitor, including Rawlings. But the contract to produce major league baseballs was transferred suddenly to rival Rawlings in 1976. Why? Was Spalding still involved somehow in baseball production? Hample doesn't tell us, which is odd, considering his ability to cram in so many facts and figures elsewhere in the book, and especially since he got us interested in mid-nineteenth century business practices and the history of the company in the first place.

But there are plenty of other fun stories, such as Pete Rose and the "rabbit" ball. For the 1978 All-Star Game Rose had his National League teammates use Japanese baseballs during batting practice (they'e smaller than major league balls, so travel farther) and the hapless American Leaguers watched as their rivals whacked them out of the park. The American League players couldn't understand why their batting practice was so lackluster in comparison (Rose and his comrades had removed all the Japanese baseballs after their practice.) The psych-out trick must have worked because the National League won the game, 7-3.

Baseball is a sport that inspires passion — players for the sport, fans for their teams, but also passion towards the minutia, the statistics. There are many who are fascinated by the science of baseball. Hample is definitely one of those people thrilled by the details and crazy lore of baseball and baseballs. And he's not alone. Stunts like dropping baseballs out of airplanes, blimps, and off the Washington Monument, all to see if a player could catch them — and this was before players wore gloves — have been going on since the late 1800s.

Another interesting story he recounts is about baseball mud — actual mud that is collected and rubbed onto every major league baseball, to make the ball's surface better for pitchers, have less glare and provide better contact for batters ... mud from some undisclosed creek in New Jersey — who knew?

Hample is best known for his ability to snag a ball at a game. He has caught more than 4,600 major league baseballs and is happy to help others get started doing the same. The second part of the book focuses on his tips for walking home from a major league game with at least one baseball. Many of his tips are just common sense, like getting to the park early for batting practice, as you'll have a better chance snagging a ball in an empty-ish stadium. And be the last to leave, same reasoning. Sort of the opposite of party etiquette, but you're there to get a free baseball, not drink tea. Some of his strategies seem a little crazy — spending the game on your feet, running from seating section to section in potential pursuit of a fly foul ball or home run, based on whether the hitter is a right- or left-handed batter. Odds are, left field is your best bet, if you're planning on watching the game on the run. Not my idea of a good time, but maybe that's me. I come from a family of longtime Yankees fans and when we go to a ballgame we're there to watch it — some of us maybe even to keep score. Also, when I was a kid and attended my brother's first little league game I happened to be standing in the perfect spot behind the batting cage for a foul pop-up to hit me on the top of my head. I wasn't injured, just embarrassed, but when I see a ball heading for the stands my tendency is to still cover my head, letting all the ballhawks make their leaps and stretches for the souvenir ball.

But whether you intend to put Hample's ball-snagging techniques to the test or not, The Baseball is an entertaining read. He stretched my credibility with his homemade ball-scooper — until he showed his step-by-step photos to making your very own from some string, a mitt, and a sharpie. Don't believe me? Check out page 224. It's not that it seems impossible to make a baseball-grabbing tool, just a little nutty that he would go ahead and use it at a major league ballpark. But that's how you get over 4,600 souvenir baseballs and counting.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

hatsume festival

Last weekend we went to the Morikami Museum to the Hatsume festival.


There were karate kids, anime kids,

Anime kids

and my kid ...

At the Morikami Museum

... in the beautiful setting.

Unfortunately the line for the cafe was so long we weren't able to get a bento box, but we had a fun time regardless. It shouldn't be as crowded this weekend. Hmmm ...
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Friday, March 25, 2011

star-cross'd gnomes

Article first published as Movie Review: Gnomeo & Juliet on Blogcritics.

As a small red gnome informs us at the start of Gnomeo and Juliet, "The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot." What crazed mind thought a retelling of Shakespeare's (too) oft-told tale, Romeo and Juliet, starring garden gnomes, would be a good idea? Some twisted genius, perhaps. Whoever the culprits were, I'm grateful. Because this distinctly untypical animated film with minimal Disney associations and absolutely no product placement that I could discern was actually a lot of fun.

The kid loved its bright colors and silly characters, but there were Shakespearean in-jokes sprinkled about that the quick-of-eye adult could also enjoy. Some that I caught (I'm sure there are many more): the numbers on the semi-detached houses of the feuding Montagues and Capulets are 2B and Not 2B. A Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moving company truck can be spotted, as well as "Stratford-Upon-Avon" as the destination on a double-decker bus. When heroine Juliet is tangling with a very large (to her) neighborhood bulldog who is trying to push his way into her yard she yells, "Out, out!" to him while his owner on the other side of the fence curses, "Damn Spot!"

The dialogue is clever, as evidenced by Juliet's reworked balcony speech, "Oh Gnomeo, oh Gnomeo, are we really doomed to never see each other again? Why must you wear a blue hat? Why couldn't it be red like my father's? Or green like a leprechaun? Or purple like, um... like, uh... like some weird guy? I mean, what's in a Gnome? Because you're blue my father sees red, and because I'm red, I'm feeling blue." Juliet not only gets to utter the only major monologue, but is a much more sassy and interesting character than the Bard's original teen queen. Gnomeo isn't just captivated by her beauty as was his alter-ego Romeo, but by her acrobatics and independent spirit. Juliet is a modern female ... gnome.

Juliet is voiced by Emily Blunt, Gnomeo by James McAvoy, and her seeing-red father by Michael Caine. Other easily-identifiable vocal talents include Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne and Jason Statham, to name just a few. The film is full of snippets of greatest Elton John/Bernie Taupin hits like "Your Song," "Bennie and the Jets" and "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," which work well in their new context of the apparently age-old battle between red gnomes and blue gnomes. John also delivers a new version of Crocodile Rock this time a duet with Nelly Furtado. It's always interesting to hear the back-stories of movies and Gnomeo and Juliet apparently has quite a long one, with John being involved since 2000.

Director Kelly Asbury was a name I didn't know, but after a little digging around on imdb I discovered that his work is very familiar (especially in our house). He directed Shrek 2 and has worked in various capacities on many great animated films: storyboard on Kung Fu Panda and James and the Giant Peach, assistant art director on The Nightmare Before Christmas, as an artist on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

Gnomeo and Juliet shows off the years of hard work that went into making it, as the little details — the ceramic "clink" whenever the gnomes touch, their rough or shiny surfaces, the vast variety of gnomes and other garden decor — all add to the fun of the film. Shakespeare may not have recognized this latest adaptation of his tragic romance at first, but I'm sure he would have approved. He wasn't exactly known for plot originality, as his tale of feuding families was based on an old Italian one. Shakespeare brought his signature language and dramatic structure to already-established stories, just as Asbury and Co. have brought their talents to the timeless tale of "two households, both alike in dignity ... " and created an engaging tale of star-cross'd gnomes.
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

remembering elizabeth

Article first published as Remembering Elizabeth Taylor on Blogcritics.

Liz Taylor died Wednesday. She had health battles her whole life, and many recently, so I can't exactly say I was surprised to hear of her passing, but it still feels as if one of not only the old guard, but the guardians of what made Hollywood special, is now gone.

She was beautiful, a fierce and faithful friend, a woman who believed in romance, even after 8 or so marriages (I lost count). She was larger-than-life. She was a damn good actress, with an extremely impressive resume, although her beauty probably clouded that fact for some. But all you have to do is watch Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf if you have any doubts. Yes, Cleopatra was silly and campy at times, but it's also one of the few spectacles still worth giving a look. I love the early scenes with Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. And it gave Liz Richard Burton and vice-versa.

She is one of the few actors who had a consistently successful career from childhood. From child roles in Lassie Come Home and National Velvet to teen roles in Little Women and Father of the Bride to her adult career, Taylor was always fascinating to watch. We may have lost Liz, but thanks to cable and on-demand programming there are still plenty of opportunities to catch some her most iconic moments on film.

I grew up watching Elizabeth Taylor on television — one of my earliest memories of her is from a Here's Lucy episode where Lucy tries on the famous and ostentatious diamond ring, the Taylor-Burton diamond, and then can't get it off her finger. Co-star Gale Gordon urges her to cut it off. Lucy is horrified at first that he means to damage the ring, but he corrects her — he meant her finger, "There's only one ring like this, and you will still have nine fingers!"

TV is also where I first saw Taylor's movies, although later I was lucky to see some of her greatest films in revival houses in New York. I especially remember the epic Giant, which I saw sometime in the late 80s or early 90s in huge Cinemascope. I was there to see James Dean, but walked out loving his relationship with Taylor in the movie. She really had an amazing empathy as an actress, and also seemed to be drawn to the lost puppies in life — I think she could really relate to Dean, like she also connected to Montgomery Clift and later, Michael Jackson.

I love her in The Mirror Crack'd, so vulnerable with co-star Rock Hudson and bitchy as all get out with rival Kim Novak. She and Montgomery Clift are both so amazingly beautiful in A Place in the Sun it's hard to keep in mind while you're watching the film that it is supposed to be a tragedy. You want to see them in love, on the screen together as long as possible. Suddenly, Last Summer, although completely over-the-top in its psycho-sexual subject matter, is still fun to watch, as much for the overwrought performances by Taylor and Katharine Hepburn as for watching the troubled Montgomery Clift post-accident to see if glimmers of his brilliance can still shine through. Taylor helped the almost unemployable Clift get the role. She was a true-blue friend.

Taylor will always be remembered as a beautiful, much-married actress with violet eyes, but her true legacy may be her charity work. She was the first to have the guts and the brains to realize that we needed to fight AIDS, not just sit back and watch friends and family die. She helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research after the death of her dear friend, Rock Hudson. She also founded her own foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.

She was quite a dame, literally. And she knew how to make an entrance.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"pray for mercy from Puss ... in boots!"

None other than Guillermo Del Toro is an executive producer on the upcoming Puss in Boots movie, "The reason I wanted to become so involved with "Puss" is because I came in and I was thinking, 'It's gonna be a spin-off of a Shrek ... with the ambition of narrating a great Sergio Leone Western combined with a heartbreak story of friendship against an ever-changing landscape that went with great agility from a Western, hardcore tone to a huge hijinks adventure to an incredibly delicate landscape of fairy tale lore. I was absolutely transfixed by this." — from Hitflix

This is a Shrek-friendly household. My daughter's first word was "Shrek," I think. There's something about the green ogre and all his pals that just delights her. Puss has always been a favorite of mine as well, and I love Antonio Banderas's self-mocking Zorro-spoofing character. This could actually be a load of fun.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

strike a pose

From a recent visit to the Boca Raton Museum of Art ...

In the sculpture garden
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Monday, March 21, 2011

"this is how you get unstuck ... you reach"

Article first published as This is how you get unstuck: you reach on Blogcritics.

"How You Get Unstuck," written by advice columnist Sugar from The Rumpus really struck a chord with me. Sugar always gives straight-shooting, marvelous advice, but in this post she shares stories from her past as a youth counselor which reverberated in two other stories I have been thinking about recently. This country puts so much emphasis on "making it" and "winning" that the tendency is to look away from, or avoid the folks who aren't doing just that.

There are all sorts of levels of not winning — financial status is just one measure. It is terrifically hard on young people — girls especially, who might be in difficult, even impossible, situations, that so many don't want to even admit that they might be in trouble. Or that the system is helpless to actually help.

Photo by Darcy Padilla, The Julie Project

Sugar relates her personal story of her time as a youth counselor to middle school-aged girls, some of them barely teenagers. She found the harrowing stories of their young lives both riveting and heartbreaking. "I told the girls that these sorts of things were not okay. That they were unacceptable. Illegal. That I would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop."

The school's tactic was to expose the girls to positive things, hoping that would bring something positive to their lives. "I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them to a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand-and-foot-holds then perhaps they would not get knocked up." As much as a program like the one Sugar was involved in might be a temporary balm, not everyone has access to one.

The Julie Project, a phenomenal photo essay by Darcy Padilla, chronicles the life of a young woman who truly lived on the edges of society. The subject, Julie, was an 18-year old with AIDs who the photographer first met in 1993. They stayed in touch on and off for the next 18 years, Padilla snapping photos of Julie and the men in her life, her children as she gave birth to them and had to give them up to foster care.

Padilla wasn't a counselor like Sugar, but she did provide a stable relationship, a touchstone, in Julie's life. A life beyond difficult from the very beginning. As Padilla describes Julie in her introduction to the photo essay, "Her first memory of her mother is getting drunk with her at 6 and then being sexually abused by her stepfather. She ran away at 14 and became [a] drug addict at 15. Living in alleys, crack dens, and bunked with more dirty old men than she cared to count."

Padilla's award-winning documentation of Julie's life is presented clearly, without sentimentality or judgement. But it is very emotionally involving to look at these photos and read  their captions. The Julie Project almost defies description — is it art, life, a call to arms or all of the above? It's one of those things we thank the internet for — I'm not sure where else it could reside. There is something more intimate about scrolling through Julie's struggles and seeing them backlit on my laptop screen than if I was flipping through moments from her life in a magazine. On the printed page I might have skipped ahead or even closed the magazine, trying to bypass some of the more difficult images.

Photo by Darcy Padilla, The Julie Project

But Sugar is not an artist in the same sense as Darcy Padilla. She couldn't apply the documentarian's eye to the girls in her charge. She is someone who gets involved. After a few encounters with the system Sugar quickly learned that help is not always on the way. "I called the police. I called the state’s child protection services. I called them every day and no one did one thing. Not one person. Not one thing. Ever... One day when I called child protective services ... [she] told me that there was no funding for teenagers who were not in imminent danger ... They intervened quickly with kids under the age of twelve, but for those over twelve they wrote reports ... and put the child’s name on a long list of children who someone would someday perhaps check up on when there was time and money ... The good thing about teens, she told me confidentially, was that if it got bad enough at home they usually ran away and there was more funding for runaways."

What has happened with the way we view people, even children, who are at risk? A chilling story, about the ineptitude and inability of the system to intervene, to help, is coming to light currently in Florida. This month in Delray Beach two young children, Ju'Tyra Allen, 6, and Jermaine McNeil, 10, were found drowned in a canal.

The tragedy behind these young kid's lives, and the half-hearted attempts by local authorities to protect them, resulted in disaster. The children had been taken away from their mother, Felicia Brown, numerous times in their young lives, but somehow still ended up back with her, in her home. As the Palm Beach Post reported, "Despite Ju'Tyra's removal, and the fact that between 1997 and 2006 she had been arrested 16 times on charges ranging from shoplifting to cocaine possession to armed robbery, Felicia was able to regain custody of Ju'Tyra in 2006. Jermaine, meanwhile, was living with a family in another state, but efforts to adopt him fell through. He was briefly placed with a foster family, but was asked to be removed because he was fighting in school and had been suspended. It was then that Jermaine went to live with Felicia."

Ju'Tyra Allen and Jermaine McNeil

Felicia Brown disappeared last summer, but somehow the two children were allowed to stay in the care of her on-again, off-again, boyfriend Clem Beauchamp during her disappearance. After the bodies of the children were discovered in the canal and identified, a body, found in a local dump 8 months ago and at first labeled a Jane Doe, was confirmed to have been Felicia Brown. Beauchamp may or may not be the  prime suspect in all three deaths, but is currently in custody on gun-related charges. The Florida Department of Children and Family claim to not have known Beauchamp was living with the family. A case like this defies all understanding of how we think local government should work, both in the circumstances of Felicia Brown's life and how they impacted her children's lives.

Sugar quickly realized the dead-end that dealing with bureaucracy can be, and decided that she had to change her tactics with the girls — both to be extremely honest with them and to live with herself. When one of the girls came in to talk with her about the latest horror in her life, "I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest, horrible thing." But Sugar doesn't stop there, just throwing her hands up at the uselessness of the system. She tells it like it is, pulling no punches. "But I did not tell her [the abuse] would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever ... she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing. She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal."

If only Julie and Felicia had come across someone like Sugar, who could shake them hard with those words of truth. Sugar only lasted a year in that counselor job, but 7 years later she ran into one of the girls. They talked about her promotion at her job at Taco Bell, about the girls from school she was still in touch with, and all of the things (rock climbing, etc.) they had done together. The girl hadn't forgotten Sugar, or her strong words. “I made it,” she said. “Didn’t I?”

It's too late to tell Ju'Tyra or Jermaine or Julie to reach, but not Julie's kids. Or any of the other kids out there, living difficult lives. The gist of Sugar's advice to those middle schoolers was that all tragedy is tragic (it's deeper than it at first sounds) and the way to get out of any bad situation is to reach, "This is how you get unstuck ... you reach ... that place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey." Amen.
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Sunday, March 20, 2011

the fur will fly

Article first published as DVD Review: Tom and Jerry: Fur Flying Adventures, Volume 1 on Blogcritics.

Poor Tom just can't get a break. Not only is he usually bested by clever mouse Jerry, but he also has a robot cat, a cute duckling, dog adversaries, and even ants to contend with in the new DVD Tom and Jerry: Fur Flying Adventures.

The whole family can enjoy these fourteen shorts compiled from Tom and Jerry cartoons from the 1950s and '60s. The cartoons by Hanna Barbera, all from the '50s, also feature recurring characters Spike the bulldog and his little pup Tyke, and the adorable duckling Quacker, who may be even more trouble for Tom than Jerry the mouse.

Willliam Hanna and Joseph Barbera introduced the characters in 1940 and worked on creating 114 Tom and Jerry cartoons from 1940–1958. The shorts from the '50s on the DVD include:

"Little Quacker" (1950) Tom tries to cook duck for dinner, Quacker, who would be hardly more than a mouthful. Note to cartoon cousin Sylvester re Tweety: are these little feathered friends worth all of the grief? Jerry of course is more than willling to aid and abet the little duck in his escape from big, bad Tom.

"Hic-cup Pup" (1952) Spike wants his son Tyke to take a nap, but Tom's waking him up gives the pup the hiccups. You can just imagine the hijinks that ensue from Tom's tryng to stay quiet as well as cure the pup's hiccups.

"Neapolitan Mouse" (1953) An Italian mouse, Topo, protects Jerry from Tom and Tom from some stray dogs, all with some wonderful background drawing which serves as a bit of a travelogue of Naples and environs. The cartoon is also playfully self-referential, as Topo reveals himself to be a big fan of the pair's cartoons.

"Pet Peeve" (1953) Tom and Spike are living happily together, until their owners, George and Joan, start arguing over keeping just one of their pets. When it's suggested that cats are more valuable because of their ability to catch mice, Jerry is now faced with two adversaries as Spike and Tom compete to see who is the best mouser.

"Pup on a Picnic" (1953) Tom and Jerry muscle in on a Spike and Tyke's picnic, Jerry because he is hiding from Tom in the picnic basket, and Tom because he is endlessly in pursuit of the mouse. Just when you think Jerry is the smartest of the bunch those ants start marching ...

"That's My Mommy" (1955) Tom inadvertently helps to hatch Quacker's egg, but Quacker's declaration, "That's my mommy!" doesn't deter Tom from trying to barbecue or bake him in a pie. Luckily Jerry is around to help protect the miniature duckling.

"Barbecue Brawl" (1956) Spike, in his best Jimmy Durante imitation, and his son Tyke try to have a barbecue in the back yard. The dog/cat/mouse dynamic is less important here, as none of them are a match for an army (again) of ants.

"Timid Tabby" (1956) Tom's cousin George is afraid of mice and comes for a mouse-free visit. Boy, has he come to the wrong house.

"The Vanishing Duck" (1957) Tom's owner George buys Joan a present, Quacker the singing duck, and then takes Joan out for a night on the town. Tom wastes no time trying to catch and eat the tiny duck, who, with the aid of some vanishing cream, is able to hide in plain sight with new pal Jerry.

"Robin Hoodwinked" (1957) Jerry and his little friend Tuffy the mouse try to spring Robin Hod from prison, who is guarded by Tom the cat.

"Happy Go Ducky" (1958) In this Easter-themed cartoon Tom and Jerry fight over booty left by the Easter Bunny, including the cutest little duckling ever, "Quacker."

Chuck Jones' studio worked on 34 Tom and Jerry cartoons from 1963 to 1967. There are three samples of his signature style included here:

"Rock 'n" Rodent" (1967) Jerry is jamming with some jazzy mice and driving poor Tom, who just want a decent night's sleep, bonkers.

"O-Solar-Meow" (1967) Even in space the race to catch Jerry is on for Tom. The cartoon also attempts to answer the eternal question of whether the moon is made of cheese.

"Guided Mouse-ille" (1967) In the year 2565 Tom monitors all mouse activity at a control panel with the help of a robot dog and cat. Do you think these space age helpers are really a match for Jerry the mouse?

The fun in Tom and Jerry: Fur Flying Adventures is in watching the chase, and Tom and Jerry never seem to tire of each other's company, just as these cartoons never seem to get old. It's hard not to root a little for Tom to catch Jerry, although I'm sure he wouldn't know what to do with him if he ever did.
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

pimps don't cry

"Why you holding that eyedropper?"

More Cee Lo goodness.

This is just all kinds of wonderful. Eva Mendes is channeling 70s Raquel Welch.

Cee Lo Green continues to be able to do nothing wrong in my book.

It's somehow reminiscent of every Tarantino movie I've ever seen in a good and bad way.

I love this video.

Friday, March 18, 2011

the lizard with no name

Article first published as Movie Review: Rango on Blogcritics.

Rango is one of the best durn looking movies in a long time. Not just in animated movies, but movies. Every shot has an amazing sense of composition. Director Gore Verbinski really uses the entire screen, like a canvas, in such a way that points out how other movies just don't do that.

Johnny Depp, in the title role, reminds us all what a good actor he really is, as his lizard is the ultimate actor, a chameleon in the true sense of the word. Talk about adapting. When the fabulous improvisational acting workshop that he apparently holds every day in his lonely fishtank is cut short — said tank goes flying out the back of his owner's car while they are swerving to avoid crashing on the highway — he is cast into the wilderness to find his way through the desert and his dreams until he discovers what he is really made of.

There are all sorts of knowing winks and references to movie genres and specific films — Sergio Leone westerns of course, Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name," Blazing Saddles, Star Wars wookies and fighters in flight, every last-ditch western town where a stranger walks into a saloon and everything stops dead as the hard characters take in the nervous newcomer. And "Rango," as he calls himself in a fit of improvisation, after he sees the word "Durango" out of the corner of his eye, jumps into his new role as savior and sheriff with relish and phenomenal good luck.

I went with my 7-year-old, and while there were definitely some scary moments, I didn't feel that it was inappropriate for her. I did some parental guidance. The fights and scares and even deaths are all very Wile E. Coyote meets Road Runner. They're kind of gruesome, but kind of funny, too. There is a sequence (quite wonderful) where Rango and pals are being chased by creatures on bats. The scene is about on par with the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, which are admittedly, still quite creepy, but again, I think not too much for the kid. There were a few moments when she snuggled closer, telling me she was scared, but it was the good kind of being scared, when you're happy to share the thrill safely with mom nearby.

The primary palette of Rango is monochromatic, which makes sense for a movie where a lot of the action takes place in a dust-covered, water-deprived, western town. Rango himself provides the main dashes of color, with his bright green skin and his loud red and white Hawaiian shirt. But the film in no way looks flat. The details of every surface of skin, hair, tooth and nail gives the film real texture and interest. It is not a 3D movie, but it has more visual interest than any 3D movie I have seen.

Another thing I loved about Rango was the dialogue. Rango is first and foremost an actor, and he's spent much of his life virtually alone, in a glass terrarium, so he has had plenty of time to develop his gift of gab. When he touches down in the town of Dirt he is surrounded by locals who talk the talk of the movie western and he manages to use his strengths of adaptation to blend right in:

Rango: Now you get back on in there and you assert yourself and I think you'll find the people in this town to be suprisingly hospitable.
Bar Guy 1: Thank you, Sheriff.
Bar Guy 2: What?! Not you again!! (throws Bar Guy 1 out)
Rango: I stand corrected.

Not only is the dialogue funny, but it is multi-sylllabic. Kids big and small in the audience might just learn something, as Rango urges book-learnin', "Stay in school, eat your veggies, and burn all the books that ain't Shakespeare." Rango, first and foremost, always the actor's actor.

For grown-up movie buffs there are some great nods to classic films. Ned Beatty as the Mayor of Dirt sounds eerily like Chinatown's John Huston. Tim Olyphant impersonates Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, and one of the town residents, owl-like Furgus, has the creaky voice of classic Hollywood western sidekick Andy Devine. Depp and Verbinski also load in lots of fun self-references. In Rango's opening monologue he ponders what sort of character he should be, quite a few of them sounding a bit like past roles on Depp's resume. Later, when he is buffeted about on the highway, he splats momentarily on the windshield of the convertible from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, until a windshield wiper sends him on his way.

There is much to love about this film, and I suspect, it will only grow better with multiple viewings. I wanted a chance to examine some of the animal inhabitants of Dirt a little more closely, as they look similar to real animals I may have seen, but ... not quite. But mostly I'd like to hear Rango try to figure it all out again, while having an existential crisis and wisecracking his way through the West.
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

forget you

Article first published as Forget You on Blogcritics.

A recent article by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, "From Cee Lo Green to Pink, Speaking the Unspeakable", had me shocked at how out of touch he must be. It was all about the F word and his apparent dismay at how prevalent it is in recent music. I know the Times insists in staying firmly entrenched in its mid-19th century stylistic roots by calling people "Mr." And "Ms." in its articles — most of the time — Cee Lo was addressed as "Mr. Green" in the article, but Pink was just "Pink." Hmmm. Anyway, the fact that in 2011 a music critic is put off by a bunch of hit songs with "fuck" in the title just tells me he needs to get out of his office and take a walk around the block. Not a walk on the wild side, Mr. Pareles, but just a stroll through the world we live in. I guarantee he would hear quite a few "fucks", a couple of "shits" and a few other choice words from George Carlin's top seven just on the way to the local deli.

Folks may lament how our spoken language has declined. I have been known to do so myself at times. I wasn't thrilled the other day when a couple of young dudes were cursing loudly in the vicinity of my kid. But she's heard the words before, even from me. (I was driving, the jerk cut me off.) I could try and blame my occasionally colorful speech to my dad, who used to curse when he got angry, or an ex-boyfriend, who taught me some colorful phrases, or my years living in metropolitan areas, where spicing up the speech can help a girl cope with fear and danger in a tough town. Obscenity-peppered speech could be a result of all of those things. Or it could just be another evolution of the English language, which never stops growing and changing.

"Fuck" is no longer the ultimate curse word. It has become a versatile noun, verb, and adverb. "Fuck" is no longer the "f-bomb," as Pareles quaintly refers to it. It's just a word. Pareles suggests that rap music and The Sopranos may have contributed to this social decline. He holds pop music up as the last bastion of musical lyrical propriety. I'm not so sure about that, and he even admits that musicians have been sneaking in curse words forever (Prince, The Who).

Cee Lo is not using "fuck" in the lyrics as a gimmick. Has Pareles even seen the video for the song? Cee Lo has a wicked sense of humor. People aren't downloading his song or turning it up on the radio because of that word. Maybe in spite of it. It's hardly the first time Cee Lo has used the word in one of his songs and it's naive of Pareles to suggest so. Cee Lo's "Fuck You" is so good that it is just as enjoyable in its radio "Forget You" version. Yes, the savvy listener has probably downloaded the original and is singing along with those lyrics. But maybe not. It's a fucking good song, whatever version, one of the best out there. Cee Lo is just singing in the vernacular.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

roman polanski's ghosts

Article first published as Movie Review: The Ghost Writer on Blogcritics.

I was about a half hour into watching The Ghost Writer before I realized/remembered that it was directed by Roman Polanski. There was something in the way Ewan McGregor was framed on the screen, with the landscape behind him that told me. Something about how Eli Wallach slowly walked out of a doorway that had just that hint of Rosemary's Baby. The way Olivia Williams looked at Pierce Brosnan that brought back Frantic. The wondering exactly who might be Kim Cattrall's never-seen but often referred-to husband that suggested Chinatown.

We never learn McGregor's character's name. He is truly a ghost as he travels in the background of the world of British ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Brosnan, who may have his best role and performance here. The Ghost has been hired to "fix" Lang's memoirs, which he finds to be singularly unimpressive, " ... the cure for insomnia," but he is quickly drawn into the strange, sealed-off world that Lang and his coterie of bodyguards, employees, friends, and family inhabits. The Ghost becomes interested in them and their secrecy, and promises that he can deliver the goods, " ... all the words are there, they're just in the wrong order." Sitting in a hotel bar watching Lang on television making an official and hopefully career and image-saving statement using words he, the Ghost, has crafted, underlines how quickly integrated into Lang's life he has become, yet also how invisible.

The Ghost Writer is based on a novel by Robert Harris, who used Tony Blair and his relationship with the U.S. during the war with Iraq as the basis for the character of Lang and much of the plot machinations. The movie could be read simply on that level, as a political thriller with contemporary parallels, but the viewer would miss so much more. The Ghost Writer is a subtle movie. Its surfaces are not exactly sleek, but they are practically monochromatic, hiding the deeper, more intense colors that must be roiling beneath the surface grays. It has standard mystery, suspense, and thriller elements, but it is much more than its on-the-surface political plot. The movie is about the inevitability that our connections with certain people, certain times, certain projects, have on our ultimate fate. It is also a bit of a horror movie — a sense of dread that permeates almost every scene. It's one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. And one of the best-looking.

Polanski presents a series of ghost and shadow figures: Lang's original ghostwriter, who is found dead— washed up on a nearby beach, his successor who seems fated to follow the clues the first ghost has left behind, the prime minister's wife who is the real power behind the throne, a college professor and old classmate of Lang's who seems inexplicably sinister. Harris, who cowrote the script with Polanski, has stated in an interview that Blair had ostensibly been a ghostwriter to President Bush when giving public reasons for invading Iraq. There are shadows within shadows.

There is a scene in the middle of the film, when Lang, surrounded by advisors, learns that he has been accused of war crimes and can no longer go home to London or any country that is part of the International Criminal Court. Frustrated, he asks, "Where can I go?" and is informed that he can remain in the U.S., or travel to China, India, and maybe a few places in Africa — all countries who are not members of the Court or its jurisdiction. Polanski is definitely pointing to his own situation, but the self-reference, which could have been maudlin, isn't. It is a grim fact of both Polanski's and Brosnan's character's existence that they have been living like quasi-prisoners for years. As beautiful as the beachfront island estate is where Lang resides, it is also a bunker.

In 1977 Polanski pled guilty to a single count of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 years old at the time. Polanski admitted to having sex with the girl, and did 42 days in prison for the crime, but fled the U.S. before final sentencing, as he was convinced the judge in the case would not give him a fair hearing. He has lived as a fugitive ever since, initially fleeing to France, where he became a citizen, and was protected from extradition to the U.S. Geimer has long since moved on from the original crime and just wants the courts and the media to leave her family and even Polanski free to lead their lives, as she feels they have both been misused by the legal system.

Polanski also has a house in Switzerland, and was able to come and go until September 2009, when the U.S. insisted he be put under house-arrest awaiting extradition. Many in the film industry, including Woody Allen, Wong Kar Waï, Patrice Leconte, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Tilda Swinton, Wim Wenders, and Tom Twyker signed a petition protesting the director's arrest. The U.S.'s extradition request was ultimately rejected by the Swiss and Polanski is once again "free."

As reported in the New York Times, the director had to be a bit of a ghost himself while making The Ghost Writer, " ... Mr. Polanski occasionally avoided the set, directing through a remote communications setup ... " Polanski's paranoia trickled into the character of the Ghost, who starts to look over his shoulder at the slightest sound, convinced that someone is after him for what he may know, even though he is still not sure what that could be. The Ghost meets with a former colleague of Lang who tries to alleviate his fears of Lang, "He can't drown two ghost writers, for god's sake. You're not kittens!"

It's hard for many to divorce the artist from their art, the person from the work. An artist puts themselves into their work, as is on evidence in The Ghost Writer. But the film is not the man. Polanski has done time for his crime. He has admitted that what he has done was wrong. The desire to continue to punish him seems strange, but like the Ghost, somehow inevitable for this director who has been chasing ghosts all his life — at the age of 10 he escaped the Kraków Ghetto in 1943 posing as a Roman Catholic named Romek Wilk, and he has had to live with the guilt that he was out of town when his beloved wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in 1969.

All of the events in an artist's life can be seen as ghosts and shadows in their work. Polanski may have stronger shadows than most. But he also makes stronger movies. The Ghost Writer is a wonderful, paranoid, hopeless and intriguing film.
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