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John Sayles's
Opens Friday, August 19, 2011

Written By: John Sayles

Starring: Garret Dillahunt, Joel Torres, Yul Vazquez, Chris Cooper, D.J. Qualls, Jemi Paretas

Variance Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The press notes for Amigo state that the film is “a page torn from the untold history of the Philippines.” Hey, where does one find a page to tear if the history is untold? In fact, “untold” is hardly the case. Even in high school, textbooks deal with “The Aguinaldo Insurrection” as a result of America’s first attempt at a world-wide empire, an imperialistic thrust that launched a vigorous opposition from the likes of Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialistic League. Extensive coverage of the period dealt with in this film is easily available from Wikipedia at
Take a look!

There is little doubt that John Sayles is using the war between the Filipinos and the Americans to punctuate current U.S. global policy, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, though his concentration in just one village with a handful of American soldiers on display makes one think that the action was small potatoes. In fact the Americans set up concentration camps around the country theoretically to separate the civilian population from the guerrilla fighters, but hundreds, probably thousands died in the camps from dysentery.

John Sayles, whose 17-feature-film resume has included his best known The Brother From Another Planet, hones in on a village far from Manila to serve as a microcosmic look at the war 1899-1902. The battle-weary Americans under the leadership of handsome Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt), are advised by their commanding officer that their mission is to win the hearts and minds of the people. (Sound familiar?) The folks living in the baryo, Tagalog language for “village,” seem to be amigos with the Yanks, particularly the head man, Rafael (Joel Torre). Both the lieutenant and the mayor communicate through Padre Hidalgo (Yule Vazquez), a Spaniard who speaks fluent English, Spanish and Tagalog and probably regrets Spain’s loss of the Philippine Islands. Rafael is in a bind because his own brother, Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) and his son have joined the guerrilla movement. While locals giving aid and comfort to guerrillas could be executed by the Americans, Simon has decreed that anyone collaborating with the invading Yanks would suffer the same fate.

The greater part of the film does not deal with battles, so if you’re looking for Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, you went to the wrong screening room. Instead, Sayles treats us to an exploration of character. The lieutenant stands in for decency and for winning hearts and minds through friendliness and promises of liberation. (His technique is mirrored in Matthew Alexander and John Bruning’s 2008 book, How to Break a Terrorist, which favors amity rather than torture to get information in Iraq.) Ideologically, the lieutenant is opposed by his commanding officer, Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper), who in one scene tortures the village head through a primitive kind of waterboarding, a technique that fails because the victim, though commanded to lead the Americans to the guerrilla leader, will only appear to comply. Again: a sign from director Sayles about the absurdity of torture, Dick Cheney’s philosophy notwithstanding.

Sayles too frequently edits back and forth, from the battlefield to the village, from a budding romance between a blue-eyed soldier and a pretty local woman to a bull session among the Yankees—many of whom appear stupider than the characters out of the Jackass movie series. Sayles succeeds in uncovering parallels, in proving that history repeats itself. Notwithstanding George Santayana’s quote “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it,” our leaders who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan must have known enough history to be aware of the dangers of foreign intervention.

In the end, one wonders why the U.S. was so intent on annexing the Philippine Islands. There’s no oil there, the people were effectively liberated from Spanish rule, and yet we held on to that distant Asian nations until 1946 when the country was granted independence “as a reward” for fighting the Japanese.

The picture is in Tagalog, Spanish and English with English subtitles.

Rated R. 128 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Joe Johnston's
Captain America: The First Avenger
Opens Friday, July 22, 2011

Written By: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Toby Jones

Paramount Pictures/ Marvel Entertainment
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Thank goodness for superheroes. How would we ever defeat the Nazis without them? The easiest way to have done this rather than allowing the American phase of World War II to drag on for 3-1/2 years would have been to enlist Captain Marvel. After all, Captain Marvel and his doppelganger Billy Batson were created in 1939 and could have gone to war just when Poland was invaded. Just a quick Shazam and the rest would have been history. Instead, we used Captain America, who was created seventy years ago in March 1941, in time to take resolute action during the war, but unfortunately not given the option of saying a magic word that would allow him to fly and to be invincible. Instead Captain America was just another guy, but a guy built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, able to leap from building to building and from one side of a collapsing bridge to another. Unlike Billy Batson, Captain America was in love—with a young, beautiful woman who speaks the King’s English. He keeps her picture with him unbeknownst to her: who knows what could have happened had he not been motivated by a dancing date he set for one week ahead of what would be his greatest triumph!

Given that the target audience for Captain America: The First Avenger, may lack a sense of history, most would not realize that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the title figure not simply as a good read for comic-book, er, graphic novel fans during the forties, but as a distinct kind of propaganda to drum up patriotism. More catchy than the generic photo of Uncle Sam’s pointing at us, convincing that he needs us, the comic served as a lightning rod to young Americans, encouraging them to sign up—though the long lines at recruiting booths on December 8, 1941 may not necessarily be entirely credited to Simon and Kirby.

In a marvel of special effects technology, Chris Evans in the role of Steve Rogers has been shrunk in the early scenes to a ninety-pound asthmatic with hypertension, given a 4-F (physically unfit) rating by the medical examiner—who tells him that he saved the young man’s life. Eager to serve his country, he makes the rounds of draft boards, lying about his identity, enough to impress Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a military experiment. Rogers would be injected with a drug that will buff him up as no steroid known since has been able to do. He will emerge as the most powerful soldier ever to fight against Hitler. Instead of an assignment to the front, he must first put up with clowning around with a bevy of cheerleaders to raise money for the war, encouraging the public to buy war bonds. He is even hooted down by soldiers who want him to step aside: “Bring back the women!” With the blessing of Col.Chester Phillip (Tommy Lee Jones) and the support of the beautiful Corporal Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), he flies to the front, liberates 400 prisoners along with his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), zaps a tons of Nazis, but dedicates himself to crushing Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). In a James Bond scenario, Schmidt has little interest in a German victory or in Hitler. Taking to heart the myths of the old German gods and the occult, he has created a group, Hydra, and with the help of a magic cube taken from a Norwegian hiding place, Schmidt creates laser guns that vaporize human beings on impact. “Hail Hydra” becomes the war cry of his cult.

This two-hour popcorn movie is loaded with explosions and some almost mystical Alpine scenery (though it was filmed in London, Manchester, New York and a couple of British studios), but don’t expect much real history to seep through—nothing to make the young ‘uns in the audience realize that World War II was largely between the U.S. and Germany, not between the U.S. and The Soviet Union as most of my high-school students had thought.

There’s nothing here that stands out from similar creations—Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk—and Chris Evans will never be confused with Maurice Evans, though Stanley Tucci comes across with an outstanding performance as a German-American whose work on Chris Evans is amusing and believable. But under the direction of Joe Johnston, who, with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on his resume must have been right at home watching the transformation of Steve Rogers into Captain America, the movie comes across well enough as an expensive work with lots of jobs for make-up artists and 300 extras. The biggest drawback is those infernal 3-D glasses, difficult to wear over your regular specs.

Rated PG-13. 121 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

David Dobkin's
The Change-Up
Opens Friday, August 5, 2011

Written By: Joe Lucas, Scott Moor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Mircea Monroe

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you do not see the error of thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, David Dobkin will supply a lesson with his new film, Change-Up. Director Dobkin and writers Joe Lucas and Scott Moor offer up quite a number of one-line zingers to match no small amount of visual and vocal vulgarity on the "grass greener" theme. In this film, two best friends in their thirties learn that the grass can indeed be greener elsewhere, but only temporarily. Trading places may be an awesome novelty at first, but like the lottery winner who starts on Cloud 9 but then becomes so unnerved by his change of status that he may regret even buying a ticket, Mitch Lockwood (Ryan Reynolds) and David Lockward (Jason Bateman) discover that the hoariest feel-good quote in book, “be yourself,” applies to them as well.

They learn this by switching personalities while keeping their bodies intact. The metamorphosis occurs without the bold drama that once saw Gregor Samsa turn into an insect, but by a process that, in line with our currently debased culture, locates them peeing into the water surrounding a statue and saying “I wish I had your life.” In just a little longer than the time it takes Billy Batson to morph into Captain Marvel, but more quickly than Clark Kent could change into Superman, the lights of the city go out. When illumination returns, presto: they look the same but David now has Mitch’s personality and Mitch becomes Dave, character-wise.

There’s little wonder why Dave wants to be like Mitch. Though making gobs of money as a corporate lawyer and on the verge of partnership, Dave has hours that do not allow him to spend much time with his wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann) and three small girls. When he changes a diaper, a wad of poop smashes into the left side of his face, followed up in good measure by another tawny bomb. A child a year old or so has developed a habit of banging his head repeatedly on the walls of the playpen. Mitch, a swinging bachelor who has no more problem hitting the sheets with the babes than Crazy, Stupid, Love's Ryan Gosling, finds his life lonely; the well-endowed bimbo nymphomaniac Tatiana (Mircea Monroe) cannot give him the peace of mind that Mitch believes comes from belonging to a real family.

Some of what passes for visual gags is worthy of a Judd Apatow, but these "gags" often range from unfunny to embarrassingly lame. Dave, now thinking like Mitch while anticipating sex “for the first time” with Jamie, becomes turned off when she takes a dump (too much Thai food) with the door open and sound effects trenchant. Mitch, thinking like Dave, wonders what he’s doing making porn movies, particularly when the seedy director instructs him where to put his thumb—three times at a that. Olivia William, suddenly becoming as ubiquitous as Jennifer Aniston as Hollywood’s new sex queen, retains both the sexiest and the most dignified role as lawyer Sabrina McArdle, working too hard with her need for real fun which is awakened on a hot date with Mitch. But Mitch only has similar libidinous feelings for Sabrina for a while. (Remember “Mitch” is Dave and is not so sure that being a swingle can cut the mustard.)

Ultimately the movie appears to say that you are not what you eat: instead, you are what you are. Obviously Dave, who studied hard and worked four jobs to get through law school, is the sort of person who would do just that. Mitch, whose own dad (Alan Arkin), considers him a lazy dude who cannot complete what he begins, is the sort who should continue being the dude who never completes what he begins. Neither party changes for long. Both long to return to their selves. Yet the picture fails to evoke the hilarity of Mark Waters’s 2003 movie Freaky Friday, which found a teen and her mother facing an abyss of a generation gap, and who learn to understand each other when they eat fortune cookies and change roles. Nor is The Change-Up as appealing as Rod Daniels’s 1987 pic Like Father Like Son, wherein a special potion changes the roles of an uptight dad and his layabout son. Those films did not rely heavily on gross-out humor. Their directors did not believe an audience would walk out saying “boring” if they did not did not hear the “F” word. I don’t believe mature adults want to watch films that rely so much on off-the-wall coarse, a sub-genre that was fine when it was introduced by the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. There’s no way we can, or should, go back to such the repressive time where film studios would not allow a bedroom scene unless both participants had a foot on the floor, but the surge of uncouth, in-your-face shots such as one finding three tattoo artists peering up close and personal at a woman being tattooed on her upper thigh, or even worse, the sight of a pretty woman taking a crap with the door open (which only LBJ could get away with). This excess of coarse could lead to a Thermidorean reaction by a public which can become more bored than disgusted by earthy dialogue and smutty visuals.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.

Jon Favreau"s
Cowboys & Aliens
Opens Friday, July 29, 2011

Written By: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; story by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Steve Oederkerk based on Platinum Studios’ Cowboys and Aliens by Scott Mitchell

Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

There is an idea you might get after watching Cowboys & Aliens, which should instead have the title Cowboys, Indians & Aliens. We in America can fix the deficit, create full employment, and draw ourselves, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba into a friendly alliance. This is how: you reestablish the draft for men, put women to work at the jobs the men in the armed forces were doing, and get China to forgive our entire debt in return for our military might. We provoke a war with Mars, use our awesome weaponry to help defeat the green people who land on various spots on our planet, and bring all nations together against a common enemy. We created an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1941, didn’t we? Remember the expression: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Now here is where Cowboys & Aliens fits in. In this picture, directed with considerable passion and a lot of special effects by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) and written by five scripters utilizing three story-tellers, two rival gangsters are brought together, Apache Indians join with the white guys, and a sheriff makes his peace with a man he had wanted to turn over to the feds for murder and robbery. And oh, a bratty, rich kid gains maturity. How did they do it? They did not provoke a war with the aliens, but met them on home grounds in New Mexico (where else?), in a war that required the cooperation of formerly hostile earthlings.

Cowboys & Aliens is a strange fusion of a genre associated with the past (Westerns are typically set between 1865 and 1890) and one usually thought of as the future. The melding does not exactly work, largely because the initial segment, the one that deals strictly with cowboys, guns, and bar fights, is so good, so well choreographed without the need for much CGI, that the latter parts pale in comparison. Think of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, about two criminals and their hostages who take refuge in a place that becomes populated with vampires. Everything was going fine until the unfortunate surprise shows that those we thought of as normal human beings (like most of us) are not what they seemed.

The opening, which sets the tone, is terrific. In this film, executive produced in part by no less than Steven Spielberg, we see a barren landscape in Absolution, New Mexico with no signs of human life. Suddenly Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) pops up, coming out of a deep sleep. He sees a strange gadget on his wrist and realizes that he has lost his memory. He knows not who he is, whence he came, and whom he loved. He strolls into town in time to save the folks from a robbery by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the last man who needs to rob as he is the spoiled, bratty son of Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rich cattle baron. Jake learns who he is through a series of flashbacks that come and go throughout the story, faces down Woodrow Dolarhyde as though upgrading Gary Cooper’s role as Marshall Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, and is confronted by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine) who clues him in about his past. When UFO’s looking like bats out of hell descend on the town, bullets are useless. The only way to confront the hostile aliens is to round up everybody including former enemies like the Apaches and rival gangs and allow Jake to use his magic bracelet to down the strange flying objects and pulverize the ten-foot aliens.

The Harrison Ford – Daniel Craig combination will likely mean big box office when the picture opens on July 29th and justly so. Ford’s character speaks menacingly just this side of camp while Craig anchors the movie as the only guy who can keep the New Mexico desert in the hands of Americans. But once the cowboys fire at the monstrous foreigners with revolvers and, much more efficiently with shotguns, the tone changes to generic zombie movie. Heads are blown off, blood gushes, and before you can say Shaun of the Dead or 1950's aliens, the green things find themselves no match. Still, it’s not until the beautiful Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), whose real identity is kept hidden for most of the story, takes action, nobody is safe, though if Ms. Wilde is intent on being more than a pretty face, her role does not allow her enough latitude.

Matthew Libatique’s lensing convinces us that we’re in a time before autos were invented, when horse thieves were summarily hanged, and cattle roamed the plains rather than swelter in abominable factory farms.

Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Glenn Ficarra, John Requa's
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Opens Friday, July 29, 2011

Written By: Dan Fogelman

Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Jonah Bobo, John Carroll Lynch, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon

Warner Bros

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Edmond Rostand’s most celebrated character, Cyrano de Bergerac, is physically ugly, cursed with a huge nose, but he has an attribute that handsome Christian de Lenvuillette lacks. Christian is tongued: doesn’t know how to talk to a woman. Cyrano is articulate. When Christian professes his love for Roxane, the voice is that of Cyrano, hiding a short distance away, literally putting words in Christian’s mouth. In other words in the game of love, one person can make up for another’s failings. Similarly, in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, a young womanizer helps out an older man who has been dumped by his wife after twenty-five years of marriage. He shows the older man the ropes: the key pickup lines, the wardrobe, the confidence. The older man makes up for the lessons in the end by teaching the younger guy something that was missing in the latter.

The concept may not be original nor is the theme: that if you’re a man in love, and you find your soul mate, fight for her. Don’t let her initial rejections grind you down. In Dan Fogelman’s script, identity surprises give the movie a patina of Shakespearean comedy, but there’s little that is lofty, particularly when sitcom conventions take over. Nonetheless there is a deserved sentimentality that could have some of the women in the audience dabbing their eyes. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a decent date movie, one that portrays Steve Carell in a role that mixes comic turns with sentiment.

The plot takes hold when Emily (Julianne Moore) announces to her husband, Cal (Steve Carell) that she wants a divorce, and that she has been conducting an affair with David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), a co-worker. Justifiably stunned, Cal moves out and turns to drink, but he’s well-heeled enough to pursue intoxication at a lavish bar, exclaiming to no-one in particular that he’s a cuckold. When Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a dashing, womanizing fellow with a fashionable two-day stubble overhears the monologue, he takes Cal under his wing, sets him up with a hip wardrobe, and shows him how to talk to the beautiful women who patronize the bar. In the movie’s merry-go-roundelay, Cal picks up and falls for Kate (Marisa Tomei), Cal’s 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) declares his impossible love for his 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), Jacob develops a thing for Hannah (Emma Stone), a bubbly woman in her mid-twenties. When the relationships are sorted out, the strings tied together albeit too neatly, surprises ensue.

No-one from foreign shores who still thinks that America’s streets are paved with gold will be dissuaded from this opinion by this movie. Andrew Dunn’s California photography takes in a bar so plush that it must be a set (it is), a Spartan, ultra-modern bachelor pad for Jacob actually the creation of a noted architect, and a spacious, though conventionally bourgeois suburban digs are home for Cal and Emily. Kevin Bacon turns in an unchallenging role as Emily’s lover, Steve Carell does his signature shtick as the cuckold, and Ryan Gosling is everyone’s stereotype of a swinger. If you like to see bright thirteen-year-olds like Johah Bobo’s Robbie showing that they have more sense than the adults, this is your kind of movie. I can do without the small fry in this decent if nothing-special date pic.

Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Troy Nixey's
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Opens Friday, August 26, 2011

Written By: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, from the teleplay by Nigel McKeand

Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Edwina Ritchard, Julia Blake, Nicholas Bell

Film District/ Miramax Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you go by the production notes, this is one of those times in which the studio had mixed feelings about being denied the PG-13 rating that it requested. Instead the MPAA slapped an R rating, which could lower box office since kids under 17 would have to accompanied by adults. Though there’s no sex in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and less violence than what would trigger an R, the MPAA allegedly considered the movie too scary for kids. This is quite the compliment for Troy Nixey, the director whose film is his first full-length job, as he has spent most of his time as an illustrator and writer of comic books like Batman. Scripters Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins should take bows as well, though whether the movie, which scared the MPAA so much, would have the same effect on you, depends on who is seeing it. If you’re a veteran film-goer, accustomed to strange creatures like those featured in Lord of the Rings, your scare factor is likely to be less than that of a 10-year-old kid escorted to the movie by a responsible adult.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which presumably got its title from the song in the musical “Carousel,” was inspired by John Newland and Nigel McKeand’s 1973 teleplay, one which we understand frightened Guillermo del Toro sufficiently to inspire him to involve himself in this big-budget job. Filmed north of Melbourne, Australia in a huge house, the kind that serves as a character in many PBS dramas about the rich and famous, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is anchored by a stellar performance by nine-year-old Bailee Madison in the role of Sally Hurst, a role that deserves principal performer ranking, a rank that was given to Katie Holmes instead.

The story opens one hundred years ago, involving the brutal murder of his housekeeper (Edwina Richard) by Blackwood (Garry McDonald), the master of the house. We learn soon enough what motivated the killing, one executed with particular panache by the crazed tenant. Fast-forward a century as Alex Hirst (Guy Pearce), an architect, and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), seek to renovate his Rhode Island house and sell it off. More drama comes into their lives when Alax's daughter, young Sally Hirst shows up, sent by her mother in L.A. for an extended stay. Sally is cold to Kim, who seeks mightily to befriend her and, in fact, the young girl is not too eager to stay in the huge house in a big bed separated by a football field from her dad’s. When Sally hears voices in a basement that’s not supposed even to exist, she becomes increasingly frightened, though the adults of course believe she is having bad dreams. We know the history of the demons in the basement, but only Sally and the mysterious groundskeeper, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), believe them to exist. Because the demons seek children, Sally’s presence awakens them to sets them to plotting the little girl’s demise.

As in many horror films—and, by the way, purists allow the term “horror film” to be used not for simple slasher pics but demand that supernatural creatures must be cast—the little monsters take their time to show their ugly faces. When they do, first one, then another scurrying through the openings in the basement gate, then a flood, Marco Beltami and Buck Sanders’ excellent music kicks into high gear as Sally, confronted by the uglies in her bubble bath, in her bedroom, and at the dining table (still no adults have seen them), snaps Polaroid pictures, the flash frightening the creatures for a moment but not serving as evidence for the adults.

For some, the big test of the quality of a horror movie is: were you scared? Still, as the production notes state, what’s of prime importance is psychological development of the human characters. We do get to believe in the characters of the workaholic father, who loves the girl, and the g.f. who is trying her best to bond with her. For credibility, consider also little Bailee Madison’s likeness to Katie Holmes. One might swear that they are from the same family: it’s uncanny. Bailee Madison is the person to watch in this movie, meaning that whether you’re scared or not—and if you’re an adult who is familiar with these type of work you won’t particularly be—you may be intrigued more by the interplay of the human folks than by the pitter-patter of the generic monsters.

Rated R. 99 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Steven Quale's
Final Destination 5

Opens Friday, August 12, 2011

Written By: Eric Heisserer

Starring:: Nicholas D’Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher, Arlen Escarpeta, David Koechner, Tony Todd

Warner Bros

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

“We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!” Far be it from me to contradict that sober advice. We wonder, though, whether we’re going to die in bed (preferably with someone who looks like Ryan Gosling or Rachel McAdams) or by violence. One philosopher, a Mr. Gary Gutting, deals with the question of death in a New York Times column August 10th called “Trying to Live Forever,” in which he concludes, “When all is said and done, how we die is a crap-shoot, and, short of avoiding obvious risks such as smoking and poor diet, there’s little we can do to load the dice.”

The characters in Steven Quale’s debut work as director of a full-length feature film (he is credited as a protégé of James Cameron as second unit director of Avatar) are going to die shortly. Some are in denial at first, but based on what they observe of one another, they become convinced that despite the youth that most enjoy, they’ve had it. In a break from the concepts of the previous Final Destination films, there is one way that a person can cheat death: that is if he or she kills someone, thereby getting an allowance to survive as long as the murder victim would have lived.

Final Destination 5 has been so well thought out by the studio that even the opening credits are a pleasure to watch, the names of cast and crew punctuated by a kaleidoscope of images made all the more penetrating by 3D technology. The opening scene, as gripping as that which set the initial Final Destination in motion, finds one member of a group of friends and co-workers envisioning a tragedy. In the first Final Destination, a young collegian, about to take a flight to Europe seems to doze off, during which time he sees the aircraft going down. He leaves the plane with a disgruntled faculty adviser who is quite annoyed about missing the trip only to find that the vision is horribly correct. The plane bursts into flame, shattering the floor-to-ceiling glass enveloping the airport waiting room. This time, a group of corporate workers are traveling to a weekend retreat on a bus when Sam has hallucinations of the imminent collapse of the bridge, with the demise of his colleagues and scores of automobiles.

Filmed exquisitely by Brian Pearson in Vancouver to stand in for New York, Quale’s picture, scripted with plentiful dashes of humor by Eric Heisserer, is a gem of a story expensively dramatized by stunning visual effects under a team supervised by Ariel Velasco Shaw. Following Sam’s vision of tragedy, he gets his group off the bus to safety, but not before a host of hair-raising near-deaths. The survival of the group is to be temporary because, as Bludworth (Tony Todd), a coroner who appears at the funeral of the dead people, warns,“Death does not like to be cheated.” The audience need not even guess the order of upcoming deaths as that will follow the pattern in Sam’s hallucinations.

Now, these folks have everything to live for, which makes their violent ends particularly tragic. Most particularly, Sam, working in a corporation under boss Dennis (comedian David Koechner), enjoys the company of his girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell). His heart is set on becoming a chef, and is now serving as an apprentice in a glitzy restaurant with an offer of a job in Paris, which he refuses to take as that would threaten his relationship with his g.f. Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta) is just four years out of college and is already a floor supervisor, much to the consternation of Roy, the union leader with 15 years’ experience. Candice (Ellen Wroe) is a gymnast, perhaps on her way to represent her country at a future Olympics. Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood) looks forward to laser eye surgery, while Isaac (P.J. Bryne), the group comic but the guy you’ll steer clear of at parties, looks forward to a series of erotic massages at a local emporium. Peter, (Miles Fisher, who resembles a younger Tom Cruise), however, is busy looking depressed and ready to explode following the death of his girlfriend, Candice.

Suffice it to say that each of the doomed will die; that’s a given. The suspense comes from the ingenious methods that they meet their end, most amusingly by a combination of acupuncture needles and a visit from Buddha. There is nothing far-out about the methods that Death uses to execute each of the folks who think they beat the system. That is what makes for credibility, as any one of these mishaps could be waiting for us as well.

Given the credible story, the awesome effects in 3D, the persuasive acting by the ensemble, Final Dimension 5 is quite likely to be thought of as the best of the series and a superlative exploitation of the horror genre, or as the French put it more artistically, of Grand Guignol.

Rated R. 92 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Tate Taylor's
The Help
Opens Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Written By: Tate Taylor, from Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help

Starring:: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia L. Spencer, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson


Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Viola Davis anchors The Help, an ensemble piece that nonetheless punctuated by Davis’s awards-worthy performance. Davis performs in the role of Aibileen, a maid in the Deep South during the bad old days of the 1960’s, a time that finds African-Americans’ bid for equality just beginning despite the Supreme Court decision a decade earlier that found separate but equal schools unconstitutional. Watching the fairly low-level demonstrations in Jackson, Misssissippi, few would have predicted that a black man would serve as President of the United States even a half-century later.

The Help, which is based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel (available on for just $8.65), is a true original, mirroring the novelty of just such a book in the 1960’s, as it was unheard of for a white woman to interview a bevy of African-American maids, get them to open up to her, and then scandalize the town despite the anonymity of the author and her characters. As interpreted by writer-director Tate Taylor, whose Winter’s Bone traces a women’s journey through dangerous Ozark Mountain territory to find her drug-dealing father father, The Help has a strictly conventional narrative with few flashbacks. Nor does Taylor employ surrealism—unless you count Mississippi’s apartheid policy forcing blacks to sit on separate park benches, drink from separate fountains, and in the case of the luxurious houses on the film, use separate bathrooms from their employers.

The irony surrounding the entire project is that no section of the U.S. could compete with The South in the whites’ close relations with blacks, particularly in that the maids serving the rich owners of plantation-sized manors were entrusted with bringing up the children.

Skeeter finds Emma Stone this time in a serious role as a writer ambitious to become a journalist and ultimately a novelist. She gets her first job with a Jackson Mississippi newspaper answering a Dear Abby-type column, but on the side she negotiates a potential blockbuster book with an editor (Mary Steenburgen) of Harper and Rowe in New York. Her pitch is the relationships of black maids and white employers in Jackson from the point of view of the maids. No interviews with whites would be held. One is not surprised to guess that the editor thinks the project will never leave the ground, given the wariness that blacks had with whites particularly in a semi-feudal state like Old Miss. Skeeter’s principal subject, in fact her only subject at the time, is Aibileen. When Aibileen, a woman of obvious dignity mixed with psychic pain, opens up—that she has had no choice other than to serve in white homes but that she has loved all the white children for whom she cared—writer and worker develop a bond which will lead Minny Jackson (Octavia L. Spencer) who at one point is fired for being caught using her employer’s bathroom, to sign up.

Much of the humor of the nicely paced feature comes from the give-and-take of Minny with her vicious, racist boss, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a woman whose character is complex in the book, but hardly nuanced in this movie. Hilly and her rich female friends have somehow found the secret of keeping their bell-shaped figures despite the diet of fried chicken that is the mainstay of Southern cooking. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) stands apart from the white women of her class in that she is naïve about both the written and unwritten code that specifies proper relations of whites and blacks (the written code of Mississippi, in fact, notes that it would be considered a felony for any resident to preach equality of the races). Foote sees nothing unusual about dining with her maid.

With Emma Stone’s character in the center, her mother, Charlotte (Allison Janney), Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who brought her up but was fired ignominiously, and boorish but Joe-College-good-looking boyfriend have truncated roles with all the men serving as mere accessories to the women. While The Help might be classified as a chick-flick by less generous viewers and critics, the film is both a lesson about race relationships particularly important for young people today to watch, given their belief that the Civil Rights revolution is over and won (it isn’t) and a superb, if not overly nuanced, stage for top actors to show their colors.

Rated PG-13. 137 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Vera Farmiga's
Higher Ground
Opens Friday, Augusut 26, 2011

Written By: Carolyn Briggs, Tim Metcalf, from Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, The Dark World

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Norbert Leo Butz, Dagmara Dorinczyk, John Hawkes, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

As Europeans turn more secular, Americans are embracing religion more fervently. The pity is that movies about religion tend to satirize sectarianism unmercifully. Think of Frailty, in which the father of a pair of teens announces that an angel orders him to slay demons. Or Religulous, which allows Bill Maher to poke fun at the world’s religions. Life of Brian deals with a man who is mistaken for a messiah, and in Dogma, two angels kicked out by God to Wisconsin find a way to re-enter heaven, but in doing so they would wipe out humanity. Higher Ground can be considered satirical as well, but so gently delivered that we in the audience are unlikely to condemn rural practitioners of fundamental Christianity despite what might seem laughable to more secular folks. Vera Farmiga, in her striking debut as director, performs in the role of a woman who has cast her lot with the locals, for whom religion is much more than a go-to-church-on Sunday while looking forward to a big ham luncheon following services.

Farmiga anchors the film as Corinne, a woman brought up in what is probably a rural area, though geographically we have no idea where the townspeople are situated. As a young child during the 1960s, Corinne Walker (McKenzie Turner) raises her hand when Preacher Bill (Bill Irwin) asks an audience exclusively of kids to raise their hands if they want to be born again. Corinne does so, probably just to experiment, but from there she is not particularly thinking of religion one way or another, until she (now played by Vera Farmiga’s sister Taissa Farmiga) marries Ethan Miller (Boyd Holbrook) a handsome, charming rock star who has been her high-school sweetheart and who is instrumental in getting his pregnant bride involved in the church.

Over a period of twenty years Corinne (now played by Vera Farmiga) threatens the church elders by her broad knowledge of Scriptures, stepping on toes of males who are considered the only qualified people to preach. Her friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) introduces her to an unrepressed sexuality much to Corinne’s embarrassment, an embarrassment that ironically turns to contempt when her husband (now played by Joshua Leonard) is unable to satisfy her sexually—or intellectually to boot.

Many scenes find Corinne involved in prayer groups inspired by the group’s passionate Pastor Bud (Norbert Leo Butz) where singing harmoniously to guitar accompaniment punctuates the comprehensive role that religion plays in the community. We in the audience might smirk when the wife of the pastor criticizes Corinne for wearing a low neckline albeit the conservative attire of a maternity outfit, but generally we look upon these God-fearing folks as spiritual people, which is to say the kinds who would never turn into a Charles Manson. However, our sympathies will probably lie with Corinne, whose very intense knowledge of Scriptures, and not of just the New Testament but learned enough to quote from “Hebrews,” is the very thing that turns her away from religion. She has spent her middle-aged years trying to invite Jesus into her heart, even waving her arms while alone in her car trying to summon something, some feeling at all that could compare to what her neighbors say they possess. But there’s nothing by emptiness.

The film could hardly have been as involving were it not for the superb craftsmanship of the director and principal character. Vera Farmiga’s role as the only dissident in the community, or at least the only person who admits that she does not feel the spirit of God, is exquisitely nuanced, never degenerating into melodrama or broad comedic shtick. This is an ensemble performance bringing in the talents of people of all ages from Corinne’s seven-year-old son to her mother, most of whom feeling or pretending to feel the holy spirit, terrified of admitting to themselves that they may be merely conforming in order to fit in. When she states in a final preaching to the congregation, “I admire your faith,” we in the audience are led to believe that the writers and director do not condemn in any way the fundamentalist beliefs of the community but, in fact, are envious that they can feel God when others cannot.

The film is based on co-scripter Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, The Dark World, which shows how the author had become increasingly suffocated by the right-wing theology of her co-religionists. Yet when the film ends, we don’t see Corinne as an out-and-out atheist, but as a woman who has left her church but still has her doubts.

Rated R. 109 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood’s
Magic Trip
Opens Friday, August 5, 2011
Cinema Village


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The enigmatic novelist Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. In 1963 he decided to stop writing since he felt if Shakespeare had been alive at that time he would be exploring the film medium and not writing plays.

Inspired by the collective grieving after the Kennedy assassination, Kesey and a group of friends with nicknames like Stark Naked, Hardly Visible and Generally Famished decided to embark on a road trip from California to the World’s Fair in New York via a graffiti-painted school bus dubbed: ‘Further’ (a philosophical concept’).

Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters—which included Neal Cassady—the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road—took to the road in 1964 to “seek the soul of America.” They brought along a bunch of 16mm cameras although no one really knew how to use them.

Along their journey they took a lot of drugs, had a lot of sex, did a lot of swimming and filmed a lot of footage. The results are on display in Alex Gibney & Alison Ellwood’s insightful recreation of said footage along with interviews with many of the Pranksters—including Kesey (who died in 2001). Kesey and his clan had tried for 40 years to edit the material into something cohesive but never completed the project and the film was wasting away in a vault until now.

What we get in Magic Trip is a fascinating portrayal of some of the most influential artists of our time at the beginning of, arguably, the most tumultuous and significant decade of the 20th Century—certainly in the United Stages.

Gibney (who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side) and Ellwood pepper the film with important backstory about Kesey and the fact that he became a volunteer for US-sanctioned LSD experiments—which were allegedly being done to try and find a cure for insanity and actually help people, but the true intent turned out to be the CIA trying to find a way to weaken people (during interrogations and the like).

Kesey became hooked on the stuff and hallucinogens infuse his and his prankster’s adventures as they indulge and we are witness to their mind-altering antics via the footage shot.

Magic Trip admirably attempts to capture Kesey’s desire to try to break out of what people have been conditioned to think and to find a new way to see things, a new way to be. That was a pretty radical idea in 1964 when the civil rights movement and sexual revolution were just heating up.

The On The Road influences are obvious as Kesey stated: “we were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.” And watching Cassady on speed, driving the bus, is a riveting experience.

Their road trip was a highly personal one and it would be easy to dismiss them as naïve druggies. The truth is not that simple. They were searching for meaning in their lives. How many of us bother to do that today?

Later in life, when he was asked what he thought was his best work, Kesey would cite the bus trip--a very telling answer and thanks to this compelling documentary, we are given a glimpse into the significance of that accomplishment.

René Féret's
Mozart's Sister (Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart)
Opens Friday, August 19, 2011

Written By: René Féret

Starring: Marie Féret, Marc Barbé, Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau, Clovis Fouin, Lisa Féret, Adèle Leprêtre, Valentine Duval, Dominique Marcas

Music Box Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Milos Forman’s Amadeus was released in 1984, a fictionalized look at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it quickly became revered by cognoscenti as the most exciting film ever to depict the life and work of a European composer. Amadeus had everything—costumes, a full range of Mozart’s actual compositions, a humor-filled, sometimes melodramatic biopic situated in the world of Austrian nobility. Wolfgang’s sister, nicknamed Nannerl or Nana, was barely mentioned. Now, René Féret fills in the blanks in our knowledge by a likewise fictionalized look, this time at a woman on the cusp of adulthood at the age of fourteen. Perhaps it’s setting the bar too high to expect Mozart’s Sister to compare qualitatively or quantitatively to the higher-budgeted Amadeus, but having seen Forman’s masterpiece, one cannot help judging Féret’s writing, directing, and producing a film about an Eighteenth Century family of musical prodigies as wanting. Perhaps we’d be fairer to think that Amadeus was marketed primarily to the tastes of an American audience but Mozart’s Sister would stand well with European cinephiles.

In fact, given that Féret comes across as a showman who has so much to do with this film, it’s interesting to note that he has cast several members of his own family—as the title character, as Louise de France, as Maître de Musique Abbaye, his wife as editor, Fabienne Féret, and himself as the professor of music—conveying almost the sense that this is a vanity project.

Mozart’s Sister is completely lacking in humor, proceeds in an adagio pace when some allegro vivace would be in order for variety, and with just a single outburst of melodrama. Given the creative freedom that fiction affords him, Féret chooses to punctuate the work as a political statement—that Mozart’s sister was a victim of his father’s and of society’s sexism, an ideology that might allow her to sing and play the harpsichord, but not to use her copious musical talent to play the violin or, more important, to compose music. In fact, there is not a single example surviving today of any of her compositions. She ruins her life by her subservience to her father, Léopold, resulting in her loveless marriage to an older man with five children and her eventual languishing in old age, exhausted, blind, and living like a pauper though she did in fact leave a handsome estate of 7837 guldens.

Nannerl Mozart (Marie Féret) is seen at the age of fourteen, four years older than her brother, Wolfgang (David Moreau). In the man’s world that was 18th century Paris and Austria, father Léopold (Marc Barbé), himself a composer, conductor, teacher and violinist, doted on Wolfgang, whom he considered the greater prodigy and more important, Wolfgang was a man. Léopold parades both Nannerl and Wolfgang on a tour of Europe where they played and sang for royalty. But Nannerl gets a break or sorts by her friendship with two of womanizing King Louis XV’s children, Louise de France (Lisa Féret), stashed away in a strict abbey, and more importantly her bonding with the seventeen-year-old Le Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), who was grieving the death of his wife. Given that Le Dauphin was in mourning, the only way Nannerl could speak with him was to dress as a boy, which seemed agreeable enough as she was determined to deliver a letter to him from his admirer, Louise de France. When the Dauphin heard Nannerl sing a high C and revealed herself as a woman, he fell in love, asked her to compose music for him, using her compositions at several recitals for the nobility.

Since not a single composition exists today by Nannerl, the music of the soundtrack is original, by concert pianist Marie Jeanne Serero, not bad at all, in fact good enough to convince a non-musicologist that the sounds came from the pen of Wolfgang or Nannerl. Strangely, the compositions are all in the baroque style, though the 18th century classical age brought in by Papa Haydn had trumped the 17th century baroque of Bach.

Unrated. 120 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Marek Najbrt's
Opens Friday, August 5, 2011

Written By: Marek Najbrt, Robert Geisler, Benjamin Tucek

Starring: Jana Plodková, Marek Daniel, Klára Melísková, Martin Mysicka, Tomás Mechaácek

Film Movement

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

What makes a person collaborate with the enemy that is occupying their country? In the case of Sarah’s Key, French police are seen arresting Jews, rounding them up and turning them over to the German transports. In fact, a large part of France known as Vichy was governed by Frenchmen, the excuse being that the French citizens are better off when some of their own kind are in power even if that means hobnobbing with the devil. In the Czech film Protektor, a Czech man agrees to deliver Nazi propaganda on the radio while is country is occupied by the German army. His excuse was that he was doing this to protect his Jewish wife, a popular actress with a Jean Harlow look, who at least for the time being was not arrested and sent with the transports to the camps. In time he becomes almost like a rock star, garnering attention from young women seeking his autograph and even conducting a brief affair with the fiancé of the German official supervising Czech radio transmissions.

Protektor does not have the panache of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, which featured a Dutch Jewish woman infiltrating the Gestapo. Marek Najbrt’s Protektor is more of a meditation (filmed by Miloslav Holman partly in black-and-white, partly in color), using the bicycle as a metaphor. The pedaling is, in the director’s term, a symbol of human faith. “The bicycle moves along, the pedals turn, however the question remains where it’s going to take you.”

Emil (Marek Daniel) and Hana (Jana Plodková) anchor the film as a married couple. She play a noted actress who at one point accuses her husband of envying her position. The power in the relationships changes when Emil lands a job as a propaganda broadcaster and Hana is removed from her job because she is a Jew. Hana, a neurotic who is seen both with her own hair and with her Jean Harlow blond wig, becomes self-destructive, at one point actually jumping from the balcony and injuring herself. She frequently turns up at the cinema to watch her own pictures. While Hana becomes bored sufficiently to carry on an affair with the projectionist, Petr (Toams Mechacek), Emil becomes disgusted with himself for being the tool of the occupation.

Protektor can be heavy going, though it nicely conveys the period: the universality of smoking, the double-breasted suits, and in the case of Hana and also several women who come on to Emil, the style of flirtation and social dancing during the early forties. Though the crowds of hapless Jews being sent to the camps, each carrying one bag, is on exhibit, the deportations are a minor theme of the film which instead focuses on the changing relationship of Emil and Hana.

Unrated. 103 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Larysa Kondracki's
The Whistleblower

Opens Friday, August 5, 2011

Written By: Eilis Kirwan, Larysa Kondracki

Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas , Anna Anissimova Raya, Roxana Condurache, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

It takes a special kind of courage to be a whistleblower. You will probably be ostracized by your colleagues, you may be fired on a technicality, and you could even be killed. In a broad sense, Larysa Kondracki’s film, The Whistleblower, can be torn from today’s headlines. Sean Hoare, a journalist who blew the whistle on Rupert Murdock’s News of the World tabloid hackings, was found dead in his English country home in the midst of the crisis. Just a coincidence? Maybe. The police say it would take weeks to find a cause of death. Hmmm.

There’s another reason that people hesitate to blow the whistle on shenanigans. Imagine that you got yourself a job that paid $100,000 tax free for six months’ work and you discovered that the people you work with are involved with the very criminals they are supposed to expose. These circumstances actually occurred to one such well-paid diplomat, Kathryn Bolkovac, a newly-divorced woman on the Lincoln Nebraska police force denied a transfer to Georgia to be near her daughters, who were in the custody of her ex. Ready to quit the force, she is offered a job that few people want and wrote a book about her experience. The hardcover was published January 4th of this year and is available at Amazon for twenty-two bucks and in paperback for just over ten. This would be a most worthwhile investment as would your attendance at a screening of a film that is often heartbreaking, its tender sentiments contrasted with searing melodrama, and, most of all, an Oscar-worthy performance by Rachel Weisz in the role of Ms. Bolkovac. Her experience is yet another black mark on the U.S. in that Americans hired by a private contractor for the U.N. in Bosnia in 1999 not only looked the other way when confronted with graphic evidence of human sex-slave trafficking, but actually participated in the “fun.”

Though one wonders what purely English-speaking Americans can do in working with the local police to investigate rape and sex trafficking, Bolkovac is made head of the Gender Office through her affiliation with Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), who heads the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Soon enough, she learns that her fellow diplomats visit the whorehouses where the sex slaves are plying their trade, women as young as twelve who in Eastern European countries such as Ukraine are promised nice jobs as waitresses in Sarajevo with good pay. When they arrive, however, they are stripped of their passports, becoming people without a country at the mercy of goons who will stop at nothing to keep the cash rolling in from the johns. One girl, Raya (Roxana Cordurache) is even shot in the head by a local pimp for talking to the authorities. Raya stands in as a symbol of the abuses faced by these young women, a girl who trusts Kathy and whose mother is understandably eager to get her out of Bosnia. For her part, Kathy feels a particular obligation to the sex slaves, having said, “Young women confided in me about what they had experienced, putting themselves at great risk. I felt that if I could do nothing else, the least I could do was give them a voice.”

The heat rises steadily. The more Kathy learns and sees in this snake pit of corruption, the more she is willing to put herself at great risk to get documents and recordings out to the media, though one wonders whether her whistle blowing has accomplished anything at all to decrease the forced prostitution. Weisz's performance benefits from sober side roles: Vanessa Redgrave as her confidant and friend, David Strathairn as Peter Ward, who is investigating with the authority of Internal Affairs, Monica Bellucci as head of the repatriation program who cannot or does not want to do what it takes, David Hewlett as Fred Murray, her boss, intent on getting her fired.

Director Larysa Kondracki does not hold back, presenting gory scenes of maimed girls, but the success of this film rests on the shoulders of Rachel Weisz in the role of a woman who joined the U.N. group to save enough money to see her kids, but gets wholly wrapped up in the fate of these Eastern European girls. Like Serpico, who had to flee to Switzerland after blowing the whistle on corrupt New York cops, Weisz’s character was forced to live outside the U.S., now residing in Holland. The Whistleblower was filmed in Romania—in Bucharest and the Transylvanian mountains.

Rated R. 114 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online


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