O Canada! Films reviewed: Jump Darling, Underplayed, Death of a Ladies’ Man

Posted in Addiction, Canada, comedy, documentary, Drag, Drama, Family, Ireland, LGBT, Montreal, Music, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There are tons of great movies finally opening up this week, including Night of the Kings which I reviewed last fall, one of my favourite movies of the year, at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

This week I’m looking at three new Canadian movies ready to be seen There are female DJs who want to be noticed, a Toronto drag queen who who wants to see his grandmother, and a Montreal poet who wonders why he keeps seeing his dead father.

Jump, Darling

Wri/Dir: Phil Connell 

Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is an aspiring actor whose career is going nowhere. His only role? As Fishy Falters, a drag queen gig he landed at a Toronto gay bar called Peckers. And even that falls apart when he trips on his way to the stage in a symphony of disaster. His husband, a successful Bay Street lawyer who bankrolls his acting career, rubs salt in the wound: take some acting courses or go to. auditions, but no more drag, it embarrasses me. 

Russell takes this as an ultimatum, packs up a suitcase and heads out the door. He lands up at his grandmother’s place in Prince Edward County to borrow her car os he can drive off to unknown parts..    She greets him at the door with a scream and a knife. Margaret (Cloris Leachman) lives alone. She was once a figure skater (I was hired by the Ice Capades! she says) and a formidable bridge player, but since her husband died she’s been frail, forgetful and depressed.  Russel’s mom (Linda Kash) wants to send her off to an old-age home, but Margaret would rather die. So Russel agrees to stick around and help take care of her. Meanwhile he starts frequenting a tiny bar in town, where he thinks his drag act could catch on. Will he pull Margaret out of the dumps? And will hr return to Toronto, triumphant? 

Jump, Darling is a bittersweet family drama about a young gay man trying to express himself in the inly way he knows, and an elderly woman dealing with old age and loss. (The title Jump Darling refers to her husband’s suicide) This is a first time feature both for the director and Thomas Duplessie as Russell, and they pull it off quite nicely. The characters are three-dimensional not cookie-cutter. Of course it helps having the late, great Cloris Leachman in her final role, and Linda Kash who ties the two sides firmly together. This is a good movie. 

Underplayed

Dir: Stacey Lee

The music business is vast and diverse, but not equitable. Did you know that of Billboard’s top 100 DJs, only 7 are women? Same holds true in the electronic music sector, even fewer studio producers are women. And only a tiny fraction of these are women of colour. Why are there so few and why don’t we ever hear about them? This documentary looks at the industry and its history, and follows a handful of female DJs, electronic musicians and producers as they play their music in clubs, concerts and festivals over the course one summer. 

Many trailblazers in electronica — from Wendy Carlos to Daphne Oram — were women, but names like Moog dominate the collective memory. And in the electronic DJ world, at raves and festivals, women find it nearly impossible to get their proverbial feet in the door. The filmmakers talk to stars like Tokimonsta, musician Alison Wonderland, Toronto-based superstar Rezz, and newcomers like Tygapaw out of Brooklyn. The documentary shows both their professional lives — at concerts and in studios — and also gives them a soapbox to talk about the troubles they face on the road and in the workplace. Underplayed is an informative look at under-representation and equity in the electronic music world, with some cool digital graphics and great beats playing in the background. 

Death of a Ladies’ Man

Wri/Dir: Matthew Bissonnette

Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) is a Canadian poetry prof at McGill and a notorious philanderer. He sees his ex-wife Geneviève (Suzanne Clément) at Thanksgiving and Christmas along with his adult children. Josée (Karelle Tremblay) is a foul-mouthed artist who hangs out with a junkie, and his son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a brawler for a minor league hockey team who is also gay. He meets them each once a week for lunch. But his life is falling apart. He drinks heavily and his creative output — he’s a writer — is zero. And when he catches his second wife in bed with another man, he is deeply offended — How dare she… he’s the adulterer, not her! But that’s not all.

His father (Brian Gleeson) is frequently visiting him at home. Problem is, he died in Ireland decades ago when Samuel was just a boy. Other hallucinations come and go: a female bodybuilder with a tiger’s head, and the grim reaper himself. Is he going crazy? Turns out Samuel has an inoperable tumour pressing on his brain. So he decides to turn his life around. He packs up and heads to Ireland, to write his novel. There he meets Charlotte (Jessica Paré) a Quebecoise former model who works in a corner.  Is third time the charm? Will he beat his tumour? Will he ever stop boozing? And will he reconcile with the ones he loves?

Death of a Ladies Man, is a densely-packed, mood-heavy saga about an Irish-Canadian man in his sixties dealing with his life.  Although it’s set in present day Montreal and Ireland, the movie has a very nostalgic feel, and it’s brimming with Canadiana.. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, whose music appears throughout the film.  Samuel feels like equal parts Duddy Kravitz and Ginger Coffey, a Montreal everyman… all grown up. His son is named Layton (Irving Layton was Leonard Cohen’s poetry mentor.) When he leaves Canada the soundtrack instantly switches to Un Canadien Errant. He hallucinates figure-skating hockey players and fur trappers… Could he possibly be any more Canadian?

The movie — a Canadian-Irish co-production — runs into trouble with all the “meta” elements: it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching the character’s hallucinations, the plot of the book he’s writing, or the writer-director’s own fantasies. Everything centres on Samuel, and though Gabriel Byrne (who is great) is surrounded by some of Quebec’s best actors, they’re all only background figures. 

Does it work? I think it does — it’s delightful to watch, wonderfully photographed and redolent with great Canadian music — just don’t mistake art for reality.

Underplayed and Jump, Darling are now playing, and Death of a Ladies’ Man opens today.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Not about the US election. Films reviewed: The Crossing, The Kid Detective, Major Arcana

Posted in 1940s, Addiction, Canada, Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Homelessness, Kids, Mystery, Norway, Romance, Rural, Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

I’m recording this on Thursday before the US election has been settled. So with all the tension and stress, it’s a perfect time to watch some entertainment entirely unrelated to politics. This week I’m looking at three new movies about growing up. There are Norwegian children facing adult responsibilities; a grown-up kid detective fighting real crime; and a man trying to grow up and act his age.

The Crossing (Flukten over grensen)

Dir: Johanne Helgeland

It’s Christmastime in 1942. Norway is occupied by Nazi Germany with the blessings of the Quisling government. Food is rationed and times are tough but life goes on. Gerda (Anna Sofie Skarholt) is a little girl with rosy cheeks and blond hair. She’s obsessed with the Three Musketeers and wears a floppy hat, a cloak (made from an old apron) and brandishes a pie cutter: en garde, rogue! But one day she spies her older brother Otto (Bo Lindquist-Ellingsen) through a window –he’s at a Nazi meeting! Their parents are firmly opposed to the occupation… why is Otto there? Meanwhile, strange things are happening at home –the cocoa is disappearing… and their arents keep talking about sacks of potatoes. Things come to a head when the police bang on the door in the middle of the night. As they’re taken away their parents shout the Christmas presents are in the basement! Take them to your aunt Vigdis! What do they mean? Turns out there are two kids their age hidden behind a wall. Daniel (Samson Steine) and Sarah (Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten) a brother and sister just like Otto and Gerda except they’re Jewish. With their parents in jail, now it’s up to Gerda and Otto to take them across the border to neutral Sweden. Can they take Daniel and Sarah to safety? Or will they be caught?

The Crossing is an adventure story about friendship and family in a wartime setting. It’s a kids-against-grown-ups situation – most of the good adults have been arrested, while the bad ones – Nazi and local collaborators – seem to be everywhere. They are real life villains, almost witches and monsters in the children’s eyes. There are good people too, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Gerda is excited by their journey, Otto is reluctant to join them, while for proud Daniel and innocent Sarah it’s a matter of life and death. Though made for children, the movie is full of action, close calls and near escapes. It’s also a tear jerker, with some every emotional scenes. Though fictional and clean-scrubbed, it’s an exciting look back at adventures in occupied Norway.

The Kid Detective

Wri/Dir: Evan Morgan

When Abe Applebaum was little (Adam Brodie) he was the smartest kid in town. He solved mysteries at school, figuring out who broke into a locker or cheated on a test. He worked out of his treehouse. His fame grew – the pop shop owner promised him free icecream for life, and the town chipped in to get him a real detective’s office. But people grow up and things change. A 10 year old caught snooping for clues in a little girl’s closet is adorable; for a man in his thirties it’s not cute at all. His reputation tanked when he failed to solve the mystery of a missing girl. Now, Abe is an alcoholic detective, eating alone in neon-lit diners, and addicted to anti-depressants. But things take a turn when he is approached by an innocent student named Caroline (Sophie Nélisse). They soon uncover clues – a photo of a naked woman in a tiger mask and some origami roses – that harken back to the disappearance 20 years earlier. Is he just a wash out? Or will the former kid detective solve this new, terrible mystery and regain his self worth?

The Kid Detective is a totally watchable and cute comedy drama. It starts as a high concept movie – what happens to heroes from kids’ books (like Encyclopedia Brown) – when they grow up? It’s full of kid-ified versions of cinema noir clichés, seen through a mist of bittersweet adult nostalgia and small town life. It starts out a bit slow and silly, but picks up quite nicely. I saw this at TIFF immediately after a shockingly violent horror movie, and it left me with just the right combination of watchable entertainment and warm feelings (with an unexpected and shocking twist). I thought I’d hate it, but I actually liked this movie.

Major Arcana

Wri/Dir: Josh Melrod

Dink (Ujon Tokarski), who is far from dinky, is a tall and rangy alcoholic drifter travelling across America looking for work as a carpenter. He’s a fit man in his thirties, with long hair, a scraggly blond beard; sort of a homeless Jesus. Four years ago, he left his depressed town in rural Vermont under a dark cloud, vowing never to come back. But like the prodigal son, here he is again. His father died leaving him a broken-down shack, some cash and 50 acres of forest. And he’s off drugs and alcohol now, living clean and sober. So he decides to turn his life around.

He pitches a tent and thinks about his future. In the morning he begins, spontaneously, to build a wooden home from scratch with his bare hands. He fells trees with an axe and chainsaw, cuts beams and clears a field dragging lumber across the forest floor. He survives on aerosol cheese and uncooked hotdogs. But his past still haunts him: his shrewish, gambling mom (Lane Bradbury) and his former lover, Sierra (Tara Summers). She’s voluptuous but tough, slapping his face for past transgressions on one night, but showing up at his tent on another. And Dink is still helplessly in love with her. Will he complete his task? Will Sierra leave her boyfriend? And can he show his face in a town that hates him?

Major Arcana — the title refers to a tarot card reading that Sierra does for Dink – is about major changes, life lessons and destiny. It’s a bumpy love story, and a drama about a man trying to redeem himself. While there are some revelations and conflicts this is mainly a meditative look at a man building a cabin in the woods. It sounds kinda dull, but it’s actually a really soothing, healing and life-affirming film. There are hints at spirituality, but it’s not sanctimonious or heavy handed. There’s enough nudity, sex, pain and misery — this is no Sunday school – to keep you watching. The measured pace and natural beauty makes this movie an incredibly relaxing and pleasant experience.

Not my normal choice of film, but I quite liked it.

The Crossing is one of many movies that played digitally at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Fall edition; The Kid Detective opens theatrically today across Canada; and Major Arcana is available for viewing on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Stephen McHattie and Bruce McDonald about Dreamland

Posted in Addiction, Canada, Crime, drugs, Jazz, Kidnapping, Music, psychedelia, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

A once-great jazz trumpeter in his declining years is in a European capital to play a private performance at a royal wedding – a simple gig for the money. Minor problem is, he’s a junkie, prone to OD-ing before a performance. Major problem is there’s a gangster who wants to see him dead or at least injured before the wedding. And the hitman assigned to his case? It’s his doppelganger! Throw in a vampire and a kidnapped 14-year-old girl and the world starts to spin out of control. Can he ever escape this dreamland from hell?

Dreamland is a new fantasy/ comedy/drama film with a good bit of horror thrown in. It stars Stephen McHattie in the two lead roles and is directed by Bruce McDonald. Stephen is known on stage and screen for his sketchy hardboiled characters, from Watchmen to Come to Daddy. Bruce is a prize-winning chronicler of Canada’s rough underbelly, on TV and film, from Roadkill to Weirdos, known for his punk sensibility and hard-core tastes. They made the cult classic Pontypool together back in 2008 about zombies attacking a radio station.

I spoke to Stephen and Bruce at their respective homes via Zoom.

Dreamland is now playing VOD across Canada.

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Suburban types. Films reviewed: Eighth Grade, Under the Tree, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Posted in Addiction, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Family, Feminism, Iceland, LGBT, Scandinavia, School, Suburbs by CulturalMining.com on July 20, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Movies needn’t be about famous people. This week I’m looking at three domestic dramas about ordinary, suburban types. There’s a girl in 8th grade deciding what to do with her future, Icelandic neighbours fighting over a tree, and a quadriplegic alcoholic learning to draw.

Eighth Grade

Wri/Dir: Bo Burman

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a modern eighth grader who lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton). It’s the end of her last year of junior high and kids are looking at the time capsules they buried three years earlier, to see how much they’ve changed. On youtube and instagram she’s a success and she shares her thoughts on a vlog, ending each podcast with the word “Gucci”! But at school she’s the opposite of famous. She’s the kind of girl who shows up at a pool party in a little kid’s one piece when the rest of the girls are wearing bikinis. Kayla has zits, she doesn’t understand fashion and has no friends.

The guy she’s crushing on, Riley, just wants sex. And popular girls – like the snobby Olivia – won’t even acknowledge she exists. But things look up when she’s invited to Olivia’s birthday party, and even better when a much older highschool girl agrees to be her mentor. Can Kayla create a new personality, make friends and find a boyfriend? Or will high school just bring more of the countless humiliations a 12-year-old girl faces each day?

Eighth Grade is a warm and funny coming-of-age story about a girl approaching — but not yet entering — adolescence. Elsie Fisher is totally believable in the lead role. And Bo Burman, the filmmaker, started as a youtube presence himself. The thing is, a lot of the movie feels like a stereotypical boy’s coming-of-age story superimposed on a girl. Things like: whenever Kayla ogles her crush Riley she pictures him walking in slow motion to loud pop music, leaving her tongue-tied; or when her dad catches her masturbating to porn on her smartphone. (Also… what’s with all these single dad movies? In real life, 80% of single-parent families are headed by moms, not dads, but you wouldn’t know it.)

On the other hand this film deals with real contemporary issues – like consent, snobbery, bullying, sex-education and the very new, very real phenomenon of shooting drills; what kids should do if a shooter comes into the school.

Eighth Grade is a very cute and touching comedy, and one that’s worth seeing.

Under the Tree

Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s suburban Iceland. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is a married guy with a three-year-old daughter, until… his wife catches him watching porn on his computer. Not only that, it’s him in the video, with his ex girlfriend. It’s not how it looks, he says. We made the tape years before I met you – I’ve never cheated on you. No, she says, that’s exactly how it looks, and you’re out of here.

He ends up at his parents’ house, a retired couple named Baldvin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir). The family is already dealing with the disappearance and presumed death of his brother. They live in a big blue townhouse with a shady tree in the backyard. Inga has a silky cat, and Baldvin fills his free time with choir practice. They get along well with their neighbour – a divorced professional — but less so with his fitness-obsessed second wife. The shade from their tree interferes with her suntan. A small disagreement.

But just like Atli’s sex tape, little things left unchecked can grow into big problems. A series of unexplained incidents – slashed tires, salacious garden gnomes found in a planter, a missing cat – grow more and more dangerous. Can the feuding neighbours settle their crisis? And will Atli move back home with his family?

Under the Tree is a very dark comedy about life in contemporary Iceland . But don’t expect hotsprings and rustic fishing boats. It’s filled instead with classrooms, Ikea stores and government offices. The acting is excellent as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Dir: Gus Van Sant

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest. John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a redhead who likes drinking and picking up girls. An adopted kid from small town Oregon he goes to California to sow his wild oats. But his life changes dramatically when a weekend bender ends with his car wrapped around a tree. He’s left quadriplegic, with little chance of recovery. But with the help of a Swedish caregiver named Annu (Rooney Mara), he learns to operate a wheelchair and eventually how to draw with one hand. His personality stays intact and so does his alcoholism.

So he joins a 12-step AA group held in a mansion. It’s hosted by Donnie (Jonah Hill) an irreverent rich gay man with long hair and beard. Donnie always has time for his piggies what he calls the men and women he sponsors. And as John passes through the twelve steps of recovery he finds a meaning in life: drawing obscene, politically incorrect and hilarious cartoons.

Normally, if someone says a movie is about Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I’d say let me out if here. These kind of movies are both gruellingly depressing and painfully earnest. But this is a Gus Van Sant movie and he makes it work. This movie is funny, surprising, shocking and very enjoyable. Yeah, it’s sad at times, but it offers so much you rarely see. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals with the bad sides of living with a disability, just as it’s not afraid of celebrating a disabled person’s sex life.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as John, And Jonah Hill is great – and totally unrecognizable — as Donnie. Smaller roles like Jack Black as a drunk driver, Tony Greenhand as John’s caregiver and Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Ronnie Adrian, as some of the piggies – keep the movie going, The film is done cut-up style, jumping around over a 20-year period, which makes it a bit disorienting. Even so, it leads you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Eighth Grade, Under the Tree and Don’t worry, He Won’t Get far on Foot, all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Nicole Maroon and Vladimir Jon Cubrt about their new film Luba

Posted in Addiction, Canada, drugs, Family, Hockey, Movies, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Luba and Donnie are a married couple with a young son, Matty. Their marriage faltered when Donnie’s drug use got out of hand, but since rehab things are looking up. Little Matty commutes between Lou’s flat and his grandma’s home where Donnie is living. They’re barely staying afloat with precarious jobs — he’s in construction while she’s serving jell-o shots for tips. Will poverty, depression and crack grind them into the dirt? Or can a family be saved by the hope and determination of a strong young woman named Luba?

Luba is also the name of a heartfelt family drama that looks at life in Toronto through the eyes of a family left behind. It stars Nicole Maroon as Luba and Vladimir Jon Cubrt as Donnie. Nicole is a master of Fine Arts whose range includes everything from Shakespeare to City TVs Meet the Family; while Vlad is celebrated on stage, screen and on TV’s Hannibal. The two co-produced Luba and Vlad wrote the script.

I spoke with Nicole and Vlad in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. They talk about Acting, Luba, Hockey, Ukrainian-Canadians, Jack Nicholson, Toronto, the film’s genesis, why Nicole was cast in the title role… and more!

Luba had its Canadian premier on Saturday, March 24th at 5:30 PM at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Fest.

At CFF Luba won both the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture and the Reel Canada Indie Award.

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple. She’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation, and they’re  taking a break from their Toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in a lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) — he’s an artist, she’s into yoga – for a gourmet dinner and a weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat?

A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home.

They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Cities. Films reviewed: The Lost City of Z, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Colossal

Posted in Addiction, Adventure, Brazil, documentary, Drama, Manhattan, Protest, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 21, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Cities. People around the globe are urbanizing at an alarming rate, with tens of millions leaving their farms, villages and small towns each year. So this week I’m looking at movies about cities. There’s a man who wants to find a city, a woman who wants to save a city, and another woman who is trying not to destroy a city.

The Lost City of Z

Dir: James Gray

It’s 1905. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a major in His Majesty’s Army but an undecorated one – no medals, because he has never seen battle. He’s a modern thinker, not bogged down by religion and bigotry, and believes in equal rights for women, including for his wife Nina (Sienna Miller). His father — a drinker and gambler – had ruined the family name, so he jumps at the chance to restore it. The offer: to lead an expedition to “Amazonia” sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. A skilled cartographer, Fawcett must map an uncharted river running between Bolivia and Brazil. He also wants to find a legendary, advanced civilization he calls the city of “Z”.

On the ship heading to South America he meets a dismissive man with a bushy beard, round glasses and a big hat. Turns out it’s his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They make an odd couple, Costin kitted out for the jungle with Fawcett still in European mode. But soon they learn to get along. First they journey to a pop-up city in the jungle, complete with an opera house. It’s run by filthy- rich robber barons riding the Amazon rubber boom. Fawcett assembles a small team to travel down the river on a raft, further than any European has gone so far. A former slave serves as their guide. Along the way, they are attacked by locals with spears and arrows, encounter black jaguars and make it as far as a waterfall – the river’s source? There Fawcett finds artifacts he says are from the lost city he seeks. Back in London, he raises money for a second trip. His wife asks to go too, but he says it’s “no place for a woman”. Instead he takes a portly millionaire named Mr. Murray – an armchair explorer – as his sponsor. But this leads to more trouble. This time they encounter cannibals and travel even further than the first trip, but not as far as “Z”. Can Fawcett earn the respect of his family, the confidence of the Royal Geographers, and the backing of the press? Can he survive a third trip through the jungle? Or is his passion — finding the lost city of Z — just based on his own fantasies?

This is a fascinating adventure based on real historical figures. It’s also very similar to a fantastic black-and-white arthouse film from a few years back called Embrace of the Serpent, also about a European travelling down the Amazon during the rubber boom. This one is more traditional, told solely from a European point of view, with dashing explorers out to discover things lost to the locals. The indigenous people are “things” they encounter on their journey, and almost never speak. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I enjoyed the movie anyway. Charlie Hunnam is great as Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson (the heartthrob vampire from the execrable Twilight series) is completely unrecognizable in this role. If you’re in the mood for an exciting colonial trek through the jungle, this long movie is made for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Wri/Dir: Matt Tyrnauer

It’s postwar America, where the car is king and freshly-built houses in the suburbs the ideal home. Jane Jacobs is a young writer in Manhattan who publishes pieces on manhole covers and city streets for magazines like Vogue and Architectural Forum. Robert Moses is the immensely powerful, urban planning and highway czar, building enormous parkways through cities to let people commute to their far off homes. He subscribes to the visions of Swiss architect le Corbusier: Cities are best viewed from an airplane — clean, pristine and devoid of pesky things like small shops, loitering people and peculiar neighbourhoods. Cities are old and ugly cesspools filled with cancerous slums that can only be saved by wiping them out.

Robert Moses views cities from above looking down; Jane Jacobs (in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities) looks at cities from ground level. She loves the confusion and excitement of neighbourhoods and the people who live there. Moses wants to extend Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square park, and turn it into a highway, destroying Canal St, Soho, and Little Italy on the way. And no one ever defies his grand plans… until Jane Jacobs. She’s the one responsible for a new look at urban landscapes and city planning. She saved Greenwich village from destruction and changed people’s views about what a city should look like and feel like.

This is a superb documentary chronicling her battle with Moses. It also shows how people like Jacobs can challenge the orthodoxy of so-called urban renewal (what James Baldwin called “negro removal”) and its destruction of neighbourhoods.

This documentary doesn’t deal with Jane Jacobs before she moved to New York City or afterwards when she moved to Toronto (where she helped save the city from the Spadina Expressway). It’s specifically about Jacobs’ battle with Moses. And it does so in a very informative and absorbing way.

Colossal

Wri/Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has it made: an English boyfriend with a beautiful apartment, and lots of cool hipster friends who show her the highlife. She’s loose with the bottle and free with the pills. But after an especially horrific incident he gives her the boot until she dries out. So she is forced to relocate to her childhood home in a small town. She is taken under the wing of Oscar (Jason Sudeikas) a local entrepreneur who offers her a job at his roadhouse bar. (Turns out he had a crush on her as a kid and wants to renew their friendship).

She takes the job but turns down his sexual advances. Though depressed and lonely, she gradually adjusts to the slow paced rhythm of life there: working late at the bar, sharing drinks with her new friends and waking up the next morning on a park bench feeling like hell warmed over. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a giant monster is trampling through Seoul Korea, toppling buildings and terrorizing the populous. And Gloria notices something very strange: the monster only appears in Seoul whenever she wakes up in the park, drunk to the gills. Stranger still, the colossal monster she sees on the news shares her nervous tics and habits. What is the connection?

Colossal is a unique film that doesn’t fall easily into any single genre. It starts out like a sophisticated chick flick or a recovery movie, but it’s also a disaster and monster movie, a comedy and a social drama. Hathaway is good as a young alcoholic forced to deal with her addiction, and Sudeikas is equally good as a conflicted (and sometimes vengeful) friend. The Korean aspect of the movie is superficial, with locals mainly there to get stepped on. Still, Colossal is weird and surprisingly entertaining — it’s different from any movie you’ve  seen before.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, The Lost City of Z and Colossal all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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