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Richard Bowden "The Film Flaneur" (UK)

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el Protector (The Zookeeper) [DVD] (2001) (Spanish Import)
el Protector (The Zookeeper) [DVD] (2001) (Spanish Import)
Dvd ~ Sam Neill
Offered by Den's DVDs
Price: £19.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine Neill vehicle, deserves to be better known, 7 July 2009
The Zookeeper is one of the better-kept secrets of Sam Neill's career. After emerging from the commercial experience of Jurassic Park 3, the actor started work on something of completely different caliber, a moving drama set amidst the tumultuous background of an east European civil war. That film's director, Ralph Ziman, is that rarity in mainstream cinema: a creator of some political consciousness. It's a characteristic he showed in his first film Hearts And Mind (1996) set in Praetoria, which focused on a death squad assassin aiming to infiltrate the National African Congress. According to those who have seen it, the result was memorable but it remains obstinately unavailable on DVD, and so almost completely unknown to most viewers. After working on a pop video collection, presumably to pay the rent between serious assignments, Ziman took a number of years to develop what is by all accounts something of a pet project for him, The Zookeeper. It's a film which communicates a similar feeling of political unease, again focusing on the various costs, private and public, of social upheaval and ideological conflict.

Neill was a deliberate casting choice for the role of Ludovic, the disillusioned party member now animal keeper in some unnamed, conflict-ridden east European city, a character estranged from his former beliefs, his daughter (now living in Paris and sending recriminatory letters) and, ultimately, himself. In Ziman's co-written script, Ludovic's zoo is under direct threat from street fighting partisans while the keeper determines to keep it a 'sanctuary' from the constant shelling outside. Underlying all are the realities of the Bosnian conflict, the spectre of ethnic cleansing hovering on the zoo's doorstep. During the first part of the film, as the underpaid and frightened zoo staff disappear off, Ludovic gradually finds himself looking after the entire establishment with just the vet (Indian actor Om Puri) helping with animal care. Soon however local warlord Yeltsov (Marek Vasut, here frighteningly malevolent, seen more recently in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing) enters the compound, and the keeper is left to fend with his animals alone.

There's an obvious metaphor to proceedings as Ludovic watches over the creatures in his own institution while outside a different, and far more dangerous, set of beasts prowl the streets. Yeltsov's brigands even call themselves 'The Young Lions' and adopt a zoo cub as a mascot - a moment which, as they hold it up for a group photograph, reminds one of the genocidal Nazi commander and his lemur in Come And See. Haunted by his past and unspecified crimes he committed while in a position of power, the question is whether Ludovic stays put either through a need to escape from the war outside and his own conscience, or through a genuine need to look after the animals. The situation is complicated by the arrival of the young widow Ankica (Gina McKee) and her son, both looking for respite and refuge after their personal experience of war atrocities. Ankica discover a more sensitive and regretful Ludovic when she comes across his private journals - but then the war intrudes again into their humanistic enclave.

The Zookeeper can be compared to No Man's Land, awarded the best foreign language film Oscar in the same year. Both cover the same contemporary events, although Ziman's film is the more intimate of the two, less satirical. In both, blue helmeted UN peacekeepers are in evidence although in The Zookeeper they are barely noticeable, standing impotent in the background. And whereas No Man's Land focuses more on the predicament of soldiery trapped in trenches, the present film finds its heart within the civilian Ludovic. He who, whilst in a uniform of his own (that of an animal keeper, in which he still takes pathetic pride), answers to no misguided loyalties on any side.

When we first see Ludovic he is roused from his bed, awoken by a dawn raid in the street outside - a moment that momentarily recalls the anxieties of The Pianist (2002). As he proceeds to and from his work, beset in turn by self doubts, moral isolationism and the demands of checkpoint guards, Neill gives an excellent browbeaten performance, his doomed gravitas conveying exactly the increasingly shell-shocked, anguished zoo employee, too many lives weighing in his grasp. Chief among the other pleasures of the film are the superb set, apparently constructed on an abandoned military base, but entirely convincing as a 'found' location. And as a corollary to Ludovic's own moral predicament, the rundown buildings containing despairing and bewildered wildlife are entirely apposite. The Zookeeper's supporting cast are also uniformly excellent.

Given the plight of the animals it would be too easy for the film to sentimentalise events and Ziman to his credit largely avoids this pitfall. The initial cremation of the big cat, the later burning of the Monkey House and the deaths in the wolf pen are all handled with restraint and during these events, Ludovic mostly internalises his grief and suffering. In fact this is the film's weakness; the zoo keeper's hidden journals and his grudging feelings towards the young family all indicate a sensitive man - especially in comparison with the callous Yeltsov - all but crushed by circumstance but still, grimly, hanging on. His story would have been helped and enriched by an opening-out towards the end in words as well as action, although the mute significance of holding hands - a motion signifying human connectiveness, which appears at key moments during the film - has its own articulate power.

While no masterpiece, The Zookeeper is well worth tracking down and it is puzzling why it has had such limited exposure on DVD.


Machine Girl [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Machine Girl [DVD] [2007] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Machine Girl, bloody girl, 26 Jun. 2009
Great fun. The Machine Girl (aka: Kataude mashin gâru) may not deliver in terms of budget, acting or plot quality but what it possesses, and in gory bucketfuls, is over-the-top violence and blood. Plenty of blood. In fact more blood than a film has right to offer, directed with haemophiliac gusto by Noboru Iguchi. His previous credits include the same low budget and similarly off the wall pinky film comedy Sukeban Boy (aka: Oira sukeban, 2006) - but having seem them both I think this one is better. Iguchi's work may be cheap and cheerful, but rarely unmemorable. The Machine Girl is no exception, even if it is hardly the disc to pop into the player for a romantic evening in.

It begins with a striking pre credit sequence where we first see the vengeful appearance of schoolgirl, Ami Hyuga (Minase Yashiro). The delectable Ami, we are to learn, has been transformed into a machine-gunning killer by the death of her beloved brother Yu, who with a friend was murdered by Sho, the bullying son of a local yakuza leader. Ami's first attack on the Hanzou Hattori clan at home, the said yakuza - who also pride themselves on their ninja heritage - led to the loss of one of her arms. Thereupon taken in by Miki, Yu's mother and her mechanically innovative husband, Ami's stump has been fitted with a powerful weapon.

Those familiar with Planet Terror will immediately recognise the fighting potential of an armed amputee; Machine Girl goes further and eventually provides us with two of them, what with Ami's stump so gainfully employed from the beginning and then Miki's final use of a chainsaw, placed at the end of her recently lopped-off foot. That's during a confrontation at the end of a film full of such bloody engagements. Iguchi relishes outlandish scenes of dismemberment, and Machine Girl is characterised by several episodes of outlandish slicing and dicing. If you have seen Kung Pow, then you will remember the moment a hole is punched through a chest allowing interested and disbelieving parties to peer through. Typically, Machine Girl takes this a stage further, dispenses with the stage disbelief entirely and ends up with a shooting by machine gun poking through the cavity!

It's a film full of snigger out-loud moments - and some memorable lines too: for instance the heroine's "Wash your hair in your son's blood!", or the villainess' "I'm wearing a special bra made of steel!" Springing from an established tradition of martial schoolgirl-types in Japanese cinema (remember Azumi, 2003?), Ami Hyuga is cute but despite her simpering smile she soon gains grudging support from her enemies as she stalks and slashes through their ranks. The Hanzou Hattori are the prime targets, headed up by husband and wife team of the Kimuras. Mrs Kimura is arguably the worst, and dominates her cruel husband. It is Mrs K's 'drill bra' which proves the most remarkable image of the film, its revolving steel cups threatening Ami during the final attack - incidentally during which their close contact adds to the faint air of lesbianism pervading the movie's female relationships.

There are other challenges for Ami and Miki to overcome too: shortly before Ami's metamorphosis into machine-gunning ingéénue, she and new ally are abruptly confronted by the 'Junior High Shuriken Gang' (red Ninjas), in a dramatic self-introduction which reminded this viewer of the Judean People's Front crack suicide squad from Monty Python's Life Of Brian. Then a little later, having dispatched this aggressive, if youthful band, they find themselves up against the aggrieved parents of same, now armed and grouped in opposition against them as the 'Super Mourner Gang'.

Ami is very aware of the need to protect and avenge her family. After all, as she rather guilelessly reminds her brother early on, "when mum and dad committed suicide because of the murder allegation, remember what we promised?" Although not much more is made of this tragic background (there's an unspoken suggestion that the Kimuras may have been behind the original frame up) it's enough to give her ensuing rampage added significance. Even though, as she rather ironically admits initially, one should consider carefully before taking a life. This calming hesitation is soon lost in the bloody turmoil of events as Ami's determination to avenge matters drives events from one baroque killing to another.

Machine Girl's final message, if it can be taken as that, is against school bullying, issued here with straight face. Given the mayhem amongst juniors we've just witnessed, one assumes it is meant ironically. Indeed a lot of the film works best with a huge suspension of disbelief and jaundiced humour as we sit back and watch the special effects guys do their business, putting the motivations of the central characters down to the entertaining peculiarities of Japanese popular culture. If there is an old fashioned grindhouse still alive and well in Tokyo, then this would be showing. Ultimately, this is not a cruel film, or even really disturbing, more grotesque and cartoonishly macabre, performed in a way which its target audience will understand entirely. Shot on video, it looks cheap and none of the special effects are first rank. But there's hardly a dull scene in it, even if the dangers of diminishing returns for this sort of display become apparent towards the end. At any rate it's obviously proved a success, for the director has already completed the short Shyness Machine Girl and, perhaps with thoughts still on the appeal of automated mayhem, plans 'Robo-Geisha' next.


Freedomland [Blu-ray] [2008] [Region Free]
Freedomland [Blu-ray] [2008] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Samuel L. Jackson
Offered by Not2day Media
Price: £2.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth a rent rather than a purchase, 28 May 2009
When a black driver abducts a New Jersey mother's child, apparently as part of a carjacking, cop Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) battles to solve the case before its implications on neighbourhood race relations grow too desperate. To help him he uses a missing child researcher, one of a group of mothers all of who had lost children. But as he confronts the mother, Brenda (Julianne Moore), and they search 'Freedomland', a deserted children's facility, all is not as it seems...

Freedomland is a serious film, with serious messages. One could easily imagine it as a project of Spike Lee at his most socially conscious, and whose film Do The Right Thing (1989) some of this resembles. Joe Roth, the director of the present title, has a less prestigious CV than Lee (Roth's last movie was Christmas With The Kranks), but makes surprisingly good work of bringing Richard Price's novel to the screen - even if the sum is less than its parts. Price's previous, respected, work for the screen includes screenplays for Clockers and Shaft. With his own adaptation of Freedomland, he was faced with bringing to audiences a story with two distinct threads: that of a kidnapping as well as imminent social unrest. The fault-line between the two, although necessarily related in the narrative, would always be a difficult one to mend and some of the weaknesses in the final film can be put down to uncertainties in bridging that gap.

Uncertainties existed too in the studio's marketing of the film which, in the words of one observer, made it out to be a 'thriller/ action movie with some paranormal slant.' The fact that Freedomland never quite makes it mind up what it is (although the paranormal makes no appearance) as well as the studio's own confusions, explain maybe why it has failed to make a strong impact on the public since release.

This underrating is a pity as there's much to admire in a movie, which sees Samuel L. Jackson on good form as a cop torn between conscience and community while, casting misapprehensions apart, Julianne Moore has a good go as the mother of a missing child. The scenes between the two, or between Brenda and the child-searching organisation 'Friends of Kent', are the best in the movie. One or two - as when the truth of matters is teased out of the shell-shocked mother outside Freedomland, or Moore's monologue during police questioning - are outstanding, The trouble is that when the story broadens out from this central relationship it becomes more diffuse. It's frankly less believable, partly due to some stereotyping amongst the blacks and the cops. Council has his work cut out finding a missing child, defusing local tensions as well as facing some personal issues of his own. But when civil upheaval ensues and he finally offers the troubled Brenda his apparently hard-won advice (something about God always giving parents a second chance with their children) nothing is as memorable as it ought to be. No less convincing is her sudden kiss of the policeman, suggesting a depth of emotion un-guessed at, both by him and the audience.

Outside of Brenda and Lorenzo's increasingly fraught relationship as investigator and victim the film suffers from a degree of self-importance. In an interview titled Writing Freedomland included on the disc, Price talks about the inspiration behind his book - that of the real life Susan Price, who also claimed her child had been abducted by a black man. He goes on to term racism as "the American flu - everyone's got it." This may well be the case, but Freedomland offers little new in its portrayal, right down to the moment a provocative riot cop pushes an urban youth over the line into violence to start a riot. In The Lay Of The Land, another featurette, we get to see something of the technical side of the production, and how the cinematographer and production designer worked to give a noir-ish feel to project, but again this is not something especially noteworthy. Finally, in the piece Race On The Job, real-life homicide detective Calvin Hart ruminates on being black cop (Hart appears in a supporting role in the film - as, incidentally does author Price, as Brenda's attorney) and clearly it is not an easy line of work. Neither the director, Jackson or Price contribute to any of this, nor is there any commentary track - which is disappointing. There's only deleted scenes and the trailer other than this, perhaps another indicator of lack of faith in the product.

Neither as bad as some have made out, nor as good as it might have been, this is worth a rental but the cost of blu-ray discs especially means that hard earned cash might be better invested elsewhere for permanent acquisition.


Changeling [Blu-ray][Region Free]
Changeling [Blu-ray][Region Free]
Dvd ~ Angelina Jolie
Price: £5.99

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, if no masterpiece, 28 May 2009
Changeling is Clint Eastwood's 31st film, one of five he has released in the last four years. Although with Gran Torino the now-elderly star has announced his probable retirement from acting, in other ways he shows little other sign of slowing down, being now in the middle of 'The Human Factor', due out next year. At the tail end of an illustrious career, Eastwood's stock as a director has remained high throughout, his concerns consistent. He learnt his trade at the side of such American professionals as Don Siegel but arguably has superseded his mentor, and others, as the years have passed.

Based on true events, Changeling continues the feminist strand in some of Eastwood's work, where the casual, callous treatment of women, taken either as the main or side event, forms part of the narrative. The film is sturdy, reliable, involving and includes an outstanding performance by Angelina Jolie as the mother who won't give up. If there's an unspoken 'but' in that last sentence, ironically it's because the film is so thoroughly excellent all round, but no more. The art department is painstaking in its recreation of period detail, the narrative deft in projecting its chief protagonist through various trials and tribulations (including traumatic incarceration in a mental ward for her obstinacy); John Malkovich plays well as the crusading Reverend Briegleb, who takes Collins' cause to the wider public, and so on. Even the film's less satisfactory elements, being those for the most part surrounding Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) the child abductor - whose representation as an unbalanced individual is a little too exaggerated, and the associated gallows scene has been questioned by some critics - do not really detract from the overall achievement. But a thoroughly good, decent movie is not necessarily a great one, and ultimately it lacks an edge at its centre.

Changeling locates the dark heart of its city in the corrupt administration of justice, doled out by well-played cops and officials who might, never the less, have strolled in from any other good movie. The immorality reaches out of city hall to pervade and ruin the lives of those who cross it. Polanski's Chinatown dealt with corruption, albeit at a slightly later date, festering at the heart of personal and civic society, also in historic L.A. But there the malign influence spread outwards from the individual and family towards the environment. It's a reverse process which started that masterpiece off with a cynical, dark heart denied to the less scabrous family drama sitting at the core of Changeling: that of Collins' separation and continual love for her missing son.

Christine Collins seeks justice. The sort of justice that will do is never in doubt, right down the verdict of the final trial, scripted with the help of existing records. To take one more observation from the earlier film, in Chinatown the justice required is often fateful and unclear, making the reaching for it seem far more dangerous and, perhaps, more memorable. Missing persons, unsolved mysteries and corrupt officials are usually the province of the private investigator. Christine Collins' reluctant assumption of the role of heroine, aided by her reverend friend and supporter, is something the story made essential - even if a story played out through the persona of a distraught mother could easily become melodrama.

It's to Eastwood's credit that it does not. Despite Collins' lurid treatment in the mental home, electric shock treatment and all, the director's restrained treatment of the subject matter, as well as the inherent dignity of Jolie's character, all buoy the film up, whilst Malkovich's dignified contribution to proceedings adds a further touch of class. Eastwood's empathy with actors is such that Jolie, in the DVD interview accompanying the movie, claims at one point that she only wants to work with Eastwood from now on - a flattering exaggeration, but doubtless reflecting the high regard he gets from colleagues. The director's calm, proficient touch is everywhere until, it must be said, even the matter of serial child torture seems de-sensationalised, the unpalatable made practically palatable. Perhaps this is one reason why the execution scene and asylum shock therapy is emphasised as it is, in order to restore something of the necessary horror and revulsion back to the narrative.

Critical niggling aside, none of this is to say that Changeling isn't a success on its own terms, deserving of high marks. Excellence brings it own rewards; here's a movie which never drags, provides consistent, entertaining drama showing old-style film making at its best. It's a shame that the extras don't support the project more confidently on the blu-ray disc. Once again the vastly superior storage facility of the format is under-utilised; though the film itself looks splendid, the period sepia look convincingly created by cinematographer Tom Stern. The buyer gets two short (18 minutes total), mainly self-congratulatory, documentaries. A look at the historical events, which inspired Eastwood's scriptwriter, was however a pre-requisite. So, as part of the U-Control feature there's Lost Angeles: Then And Now - in which one can explore the visual history of Los Angeles and compare the 1920s' city to today's, as well as viewing archival images and documents revealing the real-life individuals and story portrayed in the film.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 23, 2009 8:43 PM BST


Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set 2: 4-7 [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set 2: 4-7 [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Zachary Scott

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag - might be better trying the discs separately, 17 May 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the second, bumper survey of a group of British films which have until now, remained largely unknown. Taking advantage of arrangements favoured by the UK's Eady levy (a state film subsidy established after the war) in 1950, American producer Robert Lippert formed a business alliance with Hammer studios. Under the agreement, Lippert would provide American acting talent - frequently shop-worn stars or just supporting actors who fancied a profitable trip out of the country - while Hammer would supply the rest of the cast and the production facilities. Together they would split the profits. Famous for his concern with the bottom line, Lippert produced over 140 films between 1946 and 1955, characteristically genre pieces such as I Shot Jesse James or Rocketship XM. For the British deal, most of the films were noir-ish thrillers. None were entirely of the first rank, but of the selection so far released under the collection title Hammer Film Noir, they remain never less than entertaining.

Hammer's principal reputation today rests upon its series of colour horrors. In The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958), part of the interest lay in how the British studio reworked and re-imagined familiar fictional characters and their respective mythologies. With the earlier noirs there's similar interest and Terence Fisher, one of the directorial mainstays of the gothic cycle, also helmed some of the thrillers. But the transformation was not so distinctive here, and the clipped accents of some of the supporting actors and occasional drawing-room setting sit oddly with notions of fatalism, persecution and moral corruption. But there's still fascination at seeing an American genre transported to British locations and watching well known British acting talent alongside the Hollywood imports.

Box two of Hammer Film Noir begins with Terror Street (aka: 36 Hours, 1953), directed by Montgomery Tully and starring noir icon, Dan Duryea. In fact, the American is the best thing in this film, at its strongest in the first half. He plays Major Rogers, a flyer smuggled into the country to discover what his wife has been up to during his absence away on duty. Shortly after he catches up with her, she is dead, leaving the stunned Rogers waking up next to her body with just a few hours to prove his innocence. Duryea's opening scenes, mostly played solo as he explores his wife's apartment piecing together her new relationships, are the essence of noir - an alienated man, lost in an environment where moral certitudes are missing. Unfortunately the script by Steve Miller (responsible for earlier classics such as Dead Reckoning, and Lady In The Lake) grows less interesting as it proceeds, and the final complexities are forced and unconvincing. Along the way, Duryea brings life to his relationship with Jenny (Ann Gudrin), equally as good as the unfussy woman who believes his story. Kenneth Griffith also makes impact as the weasely Slosson - a character which, on a different continent, would no doubt been of attraction to Elisha Cook Jr.

On the same disc is Wings Of Danger (1952), Terence Fisher's first contribution to this box. Zachary Scott does a professional enough job as a pilot who faces disaster through suffering unpredictable blackouts. To add to his woes, when his girlfriend's brother appears lost in a cargo plane accident, he falls into a police investigation over blackmail, counterfeiting and smuggling. Robert Beatty and Kay Kendall support in a solid tale never less than watchable, even if not ultimately memorable. Light tramlines from the source print are evident at some points - unusual for a set with generally good picture quality. Kendall seems out of place as a minor femme fatale, too nice to communicate the double-crossing her character demands. Scott's most important noir roles previously were probably Ulmer's Ruthless and Mildred Pierce; here the actor is not helped by fairly anonymous art direction and by a story never really bringing out his internal conflicts.

Dane Clark appeared twice in the first box, but makes his most successful entry here with Paid To Kill (aka: Five Days, 1954) as a man in a jam, with a plan, and a dame. Possessing a characteristic persecuted look, Clark is eminently suited to the role of businessman James Nevill who - fearing that a big deal has gone sour - pays a friend to kill him, to secure insurance money for his unsuspecting wife. Nevill abruptly needs to change his murderous instructions when matters change for the better, but cannot find his unreliable friend. He finds the repeated attempts on his life - whoever it is making them - too close for comfort. Says a business acquaintance of Nevill's business style that: "it's okay for cutthroat and adventure - but not for the City of London." Such a contrast exists elsewhere in a film containing one or two jarring, humorous scenes, featuring Charles Hawtrey (a non-speaking part) partnering Nevill's troublesome, truculent investor. Away from these distractions the film is much stronger, notably in the understated love for Nevill shown by his secretary Joan (Cecile Chavreau), which is played subtly. Although for many the film's final twist is telegraphed someway in advance, Paid To Kill is reasonably suspenseful and largely successful on its own terms, efficiently directed once again by Tully.

Tully was also in charge of The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage, 1955), one of the Hammer Noir series' must-sees. Noir narratives set in and around carnivals have a small but proud heritage, stretching back to Nightmare Alley and beyond. They frequently juxtapose deformed outcasts of the sideshow with the twisted psychology on show elsewhere. The Glass Tomb concerns Pal Pelham (John Ireland), and his forthcoming attraction Sapolio 'The Starving Man', whose act is to go foodless for 70 days whilst locked, David Blaine-like, in a glass booth. "I like being my own boss. I like freaks," says Pal at one point, clearly preferring the company of his performers to some others around him. When big-hearted bookie Tony Lewis (Sidney James, in a characteristic performance) asks Pal to speak to a woman who has been blackmailing him, she shortly ends up dead, and the killer thinks Sapolio can identify him. Pal, who previously knew the victim, needs to solve the case. Geoffrey Keen, much more familiar to British cinemagoers from numerous stolid establishment roles, gets to play an unsympathetic role as Stanton the murderer.

What's interesting about The Glass Tomb is that it is built almost entirely around recurring displays of appetite and denial. Whether it's Sapolio, greedy at home, finally poisoned by strychnine-covered ham, the fridge raid of Pelham's young son, the ticket-booth man secretly coveting his bottle of booze, or those who eat so unconcernedly in front of the incarcerated Starving Man, it's a world clearly defined. At a necessarily less explicit level there's also the carnal desire of Stanton and Lewis for the girl - Stanton's two hours alone with her corpse, for instance, is never explained. Tully manages some striking scenes on a budget, notably the freaks' party, held while the body of the freshly killed girl lays undiscovered upstairs in her squalid room. The Glass Tomb has its weaknesses - it could have done with a few more freaks - but is baroque and perverse enough to be better known. It's also one of the few films in the set to have its own audio commentary. Ireland gives an adequate performance, and Honor Blackman, in a demure role, plays his wife. Some will also notice Arthur Howard, the brother of Leslie, later to appear in the minor British nudie cult item Paradisio (1961) in a small part. There is some damage to the print, but not enough to be a problem.

The presence of Alex Nichol and the trumpet playing of Kenny Baker somewhat compensate for weaknesses elsewhere in The Black Glove (aka: Face The Music, 1953) another Terence Fisher contribution, a thriller set in a London world of basement jazz clubs, recording studios and dingy flats. The genial Nichol, perhaps best remembered today for his role as the rancher's crazed son in The Man From Laramie (1955), plays hero James Bradley, a musician who picks up a singer after a London concert, only for her to be murdered shortly after. Following the familiar pattern, Bradley has to discover the real killer and clear himself of suspicion. Nichol gives a likeable performance as the trumpet player in a film that includes an archetypal noir voiceover as well as Kenny Ball's frequently soulful contribution on brass, which both add a good deal to the atmosphere. The opening, mutual attraction between Bradley and victim Maxine, played out over music, is especially fine. The intensity between kindred spirits recalls the first meeting in Gun Crazy (1950) while their later scenes just after, expressing their growing romance in cynical rhyming couplets ("Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, show me a woman a man can trust," etc), is also memorable. Bradley's continuous, professed lack of sleep adds to the dream-like mood of the piece. Maxine's sister Barbara works in Soho's Underground Club - "the sort of place you live horizontally or not at all" and most of the clues are found in and around the music produced there. The end of the film is more disappointing, a curious throwback to traditional whodunits, with principal suspects and interested police gathered together in a single room, so that the killer can be progressively unmasked. It's a clumsy and unconvincing narrative device.

Lloyd Bridges is the imported star of The Deadly Game (aka: Third Party Risk, 1954), a forgettable thriller featuring him as Phil Graham, song-writing American vacationing in Spain. When at short notice an ex-air force friend, now society photographer, asks him to drive a car to London and deliver a mysterious envelope, he reluctantly agrees. Soon his friend is dead, shot on the floor of his own darkroom, and Graham is drawn into a web of blackmail and industrial espionage. Sometimes playing out like a weak episode of TV's The Saint, The Deadly Game runs for little over an hour and remains uninvolving for much of its length, with little noir resonance. Bridges' unconvincing romancing of the signoretta he meets, all the shenanigans around a stolen formula for antibiotics, as well as a substandard fistfight in a burning theatrical warehouse, fail to generate much tension in a sluggish plot. The best thing here is Maureen Swanson's allure as the temptress Marina. Her presence back in England only serves to emphasise how artificial and insipid is the studio and stock footage-created Spain to which Graham returns when resolving the mystery. Finlay Currie, affecting a curious accent, appears as a menacing sub-Sydney Greenstreet character, Darius.

The Unholy Four (aka: A Stranger Came Home, 1954) co-stars Paulette Goddard as Angie, the wife of Vickers (William Sylvester) who returns home unexpectedly after four years. Vickers had previously disappeared in Portugal on a fishing cruise and has been presumed dead, his face scarred with an attack by an unknown assailant, leaving Vickers with temporary amnesia. As with several of these Hammer co-productions, the best part of The Unholy Four occurs at the beginning, as a stony faced Vickers appears unannounced at midnight. He ominously confronts his acquaintances in the middle of their party - including series' regular Bill (Paul Carpenter), who admits "I don't like people - even the people I like." Vickers, Bill, and the others, are naturally all suspects in the first killing shortly afterwards. After this, even with director Fisher's efforts, the tension slumps with too much talk, despite a couple of murders and a short-lived sub plot involving blackmail. The film might just as well have been called 'The Country House Murders' for, apart from a flashback sequence and Vickers' mental confusion about his past, the noir enthusiast will find little to detain him in a mystery set mainly in a large house and grounds, well away from the urban jungle. Russell Napier (familiar from his very similar roles in TV's contemporaneous Scotland Yard) plays the cop on the case, at one point gathering his suspects in the drawing room to state his suspicions. Goddard adds a touch of class to proceedings but, surprisingly, plays second fiddle to Sylvester, and displays little of the sexual allure the poster promises. The source novel for the film, incidentally, was penned by one George Sanders.

The final film in this set is yet another Terence Fisher-directed effort: Race For Life (aka: Mask Of Dust, 1954), a straightforward racing drama more than anything else. Richard Conte stars as Wells, the driver who - predictably enough - feels he might have lost his nerve whilst being saddled with blonde wife Patricia (Mari Aldon), who wants him to retire. When a fellow driver suffers a bad accident Wells feels he owes it to him, and to himself, to prove he still has it, one last time. Wells was formerly in the air force where, apparently, "he used to fly his plane the way he'd drive" so his courage is never in doubt - even if, as we see him nudge his smoking, oil-filled car round the track at the last, we feel his judgment may need inspection. The chief attraction in a film built around two big racing sequences is the location footage and the appearance of some real racing names, such as Stirling Moss, as supporting colour. Off the track the plot is less eventful, as even the potential rivalry between Wells as another driver is resolved without so much as a fist fight by the end. Tough guy Conte's story lacks enough conflict, leaving the actor little to do. This is the only film in this set presented in a 1.66:1 ratio, which to these eyes looked masked and there is an accompanying interview with Richard Gordon.

Films in this set are accompanied by occasional audio commentaries, career profiles, some picture galleries and trailers. It's an interesting set, although purchasers can be more readily directed to the stronger titles rather than perhaps buying the whole lot.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 17, 2012 11:04 AM BST


Hammer Film Noir 5 [DVD] [1955] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Hammer Film Noir 5 [DVD] [1955] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

4.0 out of 5 stars Best of the second Hammer Box by far, 17 May 2009
Dane Clark makes his most successful entry here in the Hammer Noir series with Paid To Kill (aka: Five Days, 1954) as a man in a jam, with a plan, and a dame. Possessing a characteristic persecuted look, Clark is eminently suited to the role of businessman James Nevill who - fearing that a big deal has gone sour - pays a friend to kill him, to secure insurance money for his unsuspecting wife. Nevill abruptly needs to change his murderous instructions when matters change for the better, but cannot find his unreliable friend. He finds the repeated attempts on his life - whoever it is making them - too close for comfort. Says a business acquaintance of Nevill's business style that: "it's okay for cutthroat and adventure - but not for the City of London." Such a contrast exists elsewhere in a film containing one or two jarring, humorous scenes, featuring Charles Hawtrey (a non-speaking part) partnering Nevill's troublesome, truculent investor. Away from these distractions the film is much stronger, notably in the understated love for Nevill shown by his secretary Joan (Cecile Chavreau), which is played subtly. Although for many the film's final twist is telegraphed someway in advance, Paid To Kill is reasonably suspenseful and largely successful on its own terms, efficiently directed once again by Tully.

Tully was also in charge of The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage, 1955), one of the Hammer Noir series' must-sees. Noir narratives set in and around carnivals have a small but proud heritage, stretching back to Nightmare Alley and beyond. They frequently juxtapose deformed outcasts of the sideshow with the twisted psychology on show elsewhere. The Glass Tomb concerns Pal Pelham (John Ireland), and his forthcoming attraction Sapolio 'The Starving Man', whose act is to go foodless for 70 days whilst locked, David Blaine-like, in a glass booth. "I like being my own boss. I like freaks," says Pal at one point, clearly preferring the company of his performers to some others around him. When big-hearted bookie Tony Lewis (Sidney James, in a characteristic performance) asks Pal to speak to a woman who has been blackmailing him, she shortly ends up dead, and the killer thinks Sapolio can identify him. Pal, who previously knew the victim, needs to solve the case. Geoffrey Keen, much more familiar to British cinemagoers from numerous stolid establishment roles, gets to play an unsympathetic role as Stanton the murderer.

What's interesting about The Glass Tomb is that it is built almost entirely around recurring displays of appetite and denial. Whether it's Sapolio, greedy at home, and finally poisoned by strychnine-covered ham, the fridge raid of Pelham's young son, the ticket-booth man secretly coveting his bottle of booze, or just those who eat so unconcernedly in front of the incarcerated Starving Man, it's a world clearly defined. At a necessarily less explicit level there's also the carnal desire of Stanton and Lewis for the girl - Stanton's two hours alone with her corpse, for instance, is never explained. Tully manages some striking scenes on a budget, notably the performer's party, held while the body of the freshly killed girl lays undiscovered upstairs in her squalid room. The Glass Tomb has its weaknesses - it could have done with a few more freaks - but is baroque and perverse enough to be better known. It's also one of the few films in the set honoured with its own audio commentary. Ireland gives an adequate performance, and Honor Blackman, in a demure role, plays his wife. Some will also notice Arthur Howard, the brother of Leslie, later to appear in the minor British nudie cult item Paradisio (1961) in a small part. There is some damage to the print, but not enough to be a problem.


The President's Last Bang [2005] [DVD]
The President's Last Bang [2005] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Im Sang-soo
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £3.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bang but no real blast, 22 April 2009
The original, translated name of Geuddae geusaramdeul (aka: The President's Last Bang) is 'the people of that time' or more concisely 'those people, then.' The change, made for the English language market, unfortunately replaces a title significant as the name of a particular song, played that fateful night by a singer invited to entertain the doomed presidential dinner party. The flippancy of the substitution is perhaps one reason why western critics have pointed up the black humour of Im Sang-soo's film so consistently. Formerly best known for light sex dramas such as Chunyudleui jeonyuksiksah (aka: Girl's Night Out, 1998) and Nunmul (aka: Tears, 2000), The President's Last Bang is the second in a trilogy of films dealing with the situation of South Korea from the 1970s to today and has proved to be, at least at home, the most controversial of Sang-soo's work. Apparently descendants and supporters of the dead president's party took exception to some documentary elements contained within the movie, which were duly cut from the initial Korean release as well as for some exports. (The UK version is complete.) Ironically, the director was also attacked by left wingers for creating a too-favourable portrait of a despised dictator. To such an extent, as the director attests in the interview which accompanies Last Bang on disc, that he was given a personal bodyguard after the premiere.

Assuming much of the political background to Im Sang-soo's drama will be relatively new to them, UK viewers will find much less to get worked up about, and the film contains none of the censorable material which has occupied the BBFC in the films of Korean directors such as, say, Kim Ki-Duk. Having said that, whether its the presidential bodyguards coming without bullets, the KCIA chief dozing with a hole in his sock or the two noodle eaters overhearing the President's autopsy with open mouths, there's no denying the elements of black humour in Last Bang, even if such moments should not be made too much of. Ultimately it's a political drama we have here, the staging of which the director sees as influenced by such mafia-grounded Hollywood titles as Goodfellas and The Godfather. At the same time, as the director says, it attempts to "analyse the psychological burden" of the dark years of tyranny as well as "provide a funeral for the president and all he left behind."

Chauvinistic and fascist, the memories of Chin-Lee's regime still pervade South Korea today. The director was able to base a good deal of his film on the notes of the detailed official enquiry following the incident at the Blue House. For other elements he used his imagination. He and his art director for instance did not hesitate to jettison the idea of an accurate representation of the Blue House as it was, in favour of something more aesthetically appealing. From this point of view Last Bang differs in its documentary feel from such related films as Downfall, a film where the claustrophobic, last days of a regime are also examined. But while President Chin-Lee is the centre of attention of the Korean film, his character and psychology is not explored in depth, apart from a revealing discussion over the weaknesses of western notions of democracy. Instead, Sang-Soo focuses a good deal on the KCIA chief and his main agent, and one is never quite sure between them where fact ends and director's fancy begins.

Therein lies the film's weakness. Its in the lack of a convincing documentary feel, allied to characters at the drama's centre who may have been historically present and participant in unfolding events, but at best struggle to rise about the whimsical elements of their portraits (Ju's compulsive gum chewing for instance). At worst, the writing suggests little of the angst such a plot surely engendered - something which the recent Valkyrie managed for instance, with all its faults. Last Bang ends with a dispassionate voiceover, wrapping up the fate of those involved and some shots of the state funeral. At the end of Downfall, although we know or can guess the fate of many, we are critically involved learning what became of those present. Last Bang's closing narrative, curiously uninformative, leaves us mildly disinterested, even given our lack of local political knowledge.

Having said that, Im Sang-Soo's film is reasonably absorbing throughout, and it pulls off some noteworthy moments - such as the Da Palma-esque ceiling-high tracking shot, which travels slowly above rooms and various corpses. There's another long tracking shot, this time a horizontal flow through the Blue House, which arguably shows one influence of Goodfellas.

The DVD includes a host of trailers from the same source as well as a relatively brief, if interesting, interview with the director. A brief historical note or two, putting events in context - democracy in South Korea was not restored until after a further massacre and another spell of dictatorship - would be useful for the casual viewer.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 21, 2010 7:07 PM GMT


Faintheart [DVD] [2008]
Faintheart [DVD] [2008]
Dvd ~ Eddie Marsan
Offered by Qoolist
Price: £1.49

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Faintheart aint bad, 28 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Faintheart [DVD] [2008] (DVD)
Faintheart is something of an innovation in that it claims to be the first 'user-generated feature' being cast, co-scripted and produced by the members of a social networking website. The aspect of novelty ends right there though, as the film is as cosy and traditional in tone as any Ealing comedy from yesteryear. It's an example of that characteristic British home-grown cinema where ordinary people fight through adversity to find true love and the inevitable reassurances of their own social grouping, a comfy ride filmed on a small scale. That's not to say that the journey isn't enjoyable (and in fact I had a smile on my face during most of it) but those who shy away from the cinematic world of, say Gregory's Girl or Brassed Off, and any of those UK movies which show aspirations born of national and personal idiosyncrasies, had better turn elsewhere.

For the rest of us director Vito Rocco provides a steady pair of hands in what is a charming tale set amidst the oddballs and associates of the 'Bloody Broadswords', a battle re-enactment society. At the centre of Faintheart are three relationships. Firstly, that of Richard (Eddie Marsan) and his determination to regain the love of his wife; she's understandably estranged after what proved to be the last straw: his belated appearance at her father's funeral, dressed in battle gear of the Norsemen. Richard's passion for re-enactment - part of an attempt, we suspect, to escape his mundane existence as a browbeaten worker in a DIY store - exasperates his wife (Jessica Hynes) almost as much as it embarrasses his young son. Meanwhile, Richard's friend Julien (Ewen Bremmer), a committed Trekkie, has a quest of his own: to find and retain a woman of his own and finally move out of his mother's place. Finally there's the growing friendship of Richard's son with a girl from his school, someone who recognises that to be different from the crowd is not necessarily a bad thing. In this she suggests an antidote to the disillusionment of Richard's wife as well as the unstinting fan-hood of Julien.

Shot around Worcester and Ludlow Castle, Rocco's film begins especially well with some mock heroic images of putative resistance to the Norman conquest, scenes incidentally anticipating the impact of the more serious 1066, expected next year. His confidence in his material and actors extends though the film, which uses its (surprising for a budget) 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio effectively in a familiar working class landscape of bars, homes and playing fields. Delivered deadpan, and in typically understated fashion, the acting by all concerned is right on the mark. Especially noteworthy is Paul Nicholls as Richard, diehard of the small re-enactment fraternity, whose private life is a much as a struggle as are the heroic events he recreates in costume. The film makes plainly effective, if obvious, parallels between the two worlds he inhabits. They best comes together perhaps with the mock Arthurian moment as he retrieves his recently discarded swords from the rubbish tip.

It's fair to say that the main crisis in Richard's life is when, ultimately he has to decide between real life and pretence, a moment signified by him shaving off his trademark moustache and cutting back his hair. This is also an important moment too as it marks the point where the viewer stops seeing Richard's world, as it were, from the viewpoint of his historical fantasies looking in, and instead sees the real world as now acting upon the fantasies. To a certain extent the film suffers a little after this sea change. Richard's new, sensible look and manner makes the rest of it slightly more serious in a way which is not always to its advantage.

As with a lot of films of this sort a good deal of the pleasure lays in the incidental details fleshing out the relationships and motivations between the principal characters. Julien's goofy sex talk in Klingon for instance, Richard's painstaking, inept recreation of his first date with his wife or, in one Pythonesque moment, the off-hand admission of one of the burly bewhiskered members of the Bloody Broadswords that he "was a woman once." There's nothing in Faintheart which will get them rolling in the aisles, but there's nothing that is intended to. Rocco's movie is an amiable slice of life told with affection, more broadsword than the broad humour expected by some critics. There's enough to embody some truths about the national identity which one can recognise. Like Brassed Off, or the imminent Derek Jacobi movie Morris: A Life With Bells On, Faintheart paints its portrait of a society of social eccentrics facing the world on their own terms, an echo of the national epic, writ small. Eventual success of course is understood from the start, but whether such apolitical 'doing your own thing' is more than wishful thinking, particularly in today's downturn, such films leave others to decide. In the meantime Rocco manages a good deal of empathy with his cast which communicates well, and his movie can be judged a success.

The DVD includes the director's original 'MySpace' pitch but oddly enough no proper trailer for his film. There are also casting videos, on-set diaries, information about the re-enactors behind the story as well as Katie Melua recording her song for the movie.


Memories Of Matsuko [DVD]
Memories Of Matsuko [DVD]
Dvd ~ Miki Nakatani
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £6.99

21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars half kitschy, half moving, trashy and yet poetic, 28 Feb. 2009
This review is from: Memories Of Matsuko [DVD] (DVD)
Memories Of Matsuko (aka: Kiraware Matsuko no isshô) is the sort of film that only Asian cinema seems to come up with: half kitschy, half moving, trashy and yet poetic, you just won't discover this sort of eccentric product often on the Hollywood roster. A companion piece and successor to the same director's equally recommendable Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko is the life story of a murdered recluse as discovered retrospectively by her nephew, charged by his disinterested father with cleaning up the dead woman's apartment. As he investigates his aunt's existence further he gradually discovers that life can have value after all, even when there seems none. The audience discovers how vivid personal fantasy can colour the most disagreeable world. Japanese cinema does a fine line in feminist tragedies, with an honourable line of such stretching back to Mizoguchi and beyond, films where the female centre of a movie suffers nobly within a male-centred culture. Matsuko Kawajiri is one from that same tradition, a sacrificial existence albeit filtered by a garish post modernistic pop culture. She's a female whose life when revealed, Citizen Kane-like, to the audience shows a character whose existence brings its own reward in our eyes, revealed with a nobility that only the audience ever sees completely.

Condescendingly dismissed, by one critic, as being like a "collaboration between Robert Bresson and Andy Warhol," a good deal of Memories Of Matsuko's richness lies in its heady counter-play between visual style and story. It frequently gives Matsuko's life meaning and context, by externalising her own fantasies in adversity through a riot of colours, staging and decor. Nakashima's innovative playful approach ranges from Sirkian opening credits through to bright colour and expressionist sets, Disneyesque animated birds and even musical production numbers. Fantastic and feminist in a manner familiar from Kamikaze Girls, as a 'fairytale tragedy' Memories Of Mastsuko echoes that earlier production in its sense of fun and irony. But this is darker parody than that, drawn at a much more ambitious level, with an undercurrent of emotion largely missing before. Whereas Kamikaze Girls is rooted in a rural world of daydreams, rococo ornament and girl gangs, Memories Of Matsuko takes place in an urban setting amidst yakuza, porn stars and pop, and with no happy ending for the main character.

Its energy and wit reflects something of the determination of Matsuko, a woman constantly looking for her ideal companion in life, only to be disappointed either through circumstance or bad judgement. But no sooner does she make another wrong choice, feeling thereafter that her life is over, than she reinvents herself and ploughs on into a new episode, as full of shallow optimism as the musical pastiche regularly surrounding her wayward progress. As the put upon Matsuko Kawajiri, actress Miki Nakatani is outstanding (and in fact she won a Japanese academy award). The memories of Matsuko are less the remembrances of others as much as the character's recollection of herself, particularly as often she seems to narrate her heartfelt story authoritatively from beyond the grave. From here her perspective invites judgement, and so her story becomes about not just how she was seen, but how then in turn she's seen others. It's a technique which considerably broadens the focus of the film, and allows for several excellent supporting roles. But even when others relate their experiences with her, she still dominates the movie, right up until her final appearance as an overweight, smelly frump, living in a garbage filled hovel, obsessed with a boy band.

At this point the film's erstwhile moral, about the importance of giving than receiving throughout life, is made plain. But, especially in the light of Matsuko's sacrifices during a film which frequently says one thing while implying another, we wonder how much this is to be taken without question. Some critics have criticised Nakatani dragging in the New Testament to make glib conclusion to all we have seen. Serious consolations of theology or not, Matsuko has clearly deserved better than she got. And there lays the film's achievement. Not in making the various memories of its central character unforgettable, but ensuring that our impression of Matsuko herself, who has suffered behind the veneer of cheerfulness so much, is by the end indelible.

Whether teacher, yakuza moll, sister, porn star, estranged sibling or murderess, Matsuko's experiences in life follow each other in colourful sequences, and it's a spiral that is slowly but inevitably stretching downwards. And if during her life there is an overarching regret, as part of her constant search for love and companionship, it is that she does not relate to her family as she might. Whether in pleasing her father - who comes to disown her - or being reconciled to the love of her sister, Matsuko's happiness is continually denied, at least until the end of the film where a transfiguration ensures she rests easier. It is easy to see that the distortion of her face at moments of crisis is self defining, a corrupted smile made aptly by the heroine when true joy is ever denied.

Memories Of Matsuko can be seen as both a deconstruction of the noble, self-sacrificing Japanese woman as well as restatement of serious themes through the filter of gone Hollywood and musical kitsch. Either way, there's a tension between what we are seeing, and what we understand, which gives the film interest. It's rare that one can recommend something to admirers alike of such diverse movies The Life Of Oharu, Amélie or the ironies of Douglas Sirk, but this is one such occasion.

On DVD the film comes relatively unadorned with just a 'making of' extra as well several trailers, not for Matsuko oddly, but including one for Kamikaze Girls. Another case of the UK market being short changed, one imagines, as elsewhere viewers can enjoy a two-disc presentation.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2011 3:24 PM GMT


Hair High [DVD]
Hair High [DVD]
Dvd ~ Eric Gilliland
Offered by CINESPHERE
Price: £17.22

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hooray for Hair High, 1 Feb. 2009
This review is from: Hair High [DVD] (DVD)
One of the most easily recognisable auteurs working in animation, Bill
Plympton has produced a succession of animated features and shorts over
the last few years which delight with their unique style and
idiosyncratic world view. His is a bizarre world which, unusually for
such hand drawn work, normally assumes the presence of an adult
audience and where the exaggerations of sex can be sniggered over for
all the right reasons. HAIR HIGH is no exception, and continues the
animator's regular obsessions with the strained relationships between
sexually optimistic men and women, detailed with black humour all the
while laced with some side swipes at the ironies of romance. There's
also plenty of hair spray, horny chickens, a good soundtrack, smoking,
and the genital stimulation of frogs. Rudeness, surreality and extremes
of physical contortion appear again as part and parcel of the
plymptonesque world - which this time includes nods to such disparate
films as REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and THE CASTLE OF
CAGLIOSTRO. HAIR HIGH is voiced by such talent as Keith and David
Carradine, Ed Begley Jnr and Matt Groening. Ostensibly a moralistic
tale of 50's high school love that ends in comi-tragedy, HAIR HIGH
actually engages as a characteristic free wheeling fantasy, allowing
the animator to indulge in all sorts of off the wall scenes and images
propelling the narrative forward. For those better used to the tight
pencil work and plot construction of more regularly exposed animation
studios Plympton's work, which leaps more immediately from the artist's
bizarre subconscious, often comes as a wake up call. In its attempt to
drag cartoons out of the juvenile closet Plympton's longer work has
been blazing a trail for years. With not a cuddly, wise-cracking animal
in sight and a hands-off view with regards to any computer generated
figures, HAIR HIGH is a must for admirers of Plympton. Since this film
Plympton has completed two other features, including SHUT EYE HOTEL
and, most intriguingly, TOKYO ONLYMPIC, which at 137 mins is slated at
his longest yet, double that of the present title.


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