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Ant-Man: More Brainless Than Any Insect

You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for playing the long game. Nobody’s ever tried what they’re doing with their Cinematic Universe. DC had their Animated Universe in the 90s, but those were half-hour cartoons, not massive blockbuster movies running parallel but interconnected narratives.

Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, plus the rest of the Avengers pile up to a significant confluence of awesome, especially with Joss Whedon somewhere in the equation.

But as I said when Guardians of the Galaxy came out, I’m beginning to think they were a little too ambitious; now with even more ensembles joining the franchise, it’s hard to believe that they can evenly distribute funding and talent in effects, acting and particularly writing across the whole franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a first warning sign. It’s fun enough but undeniably a B-Movie against the Avengers.

And when I looked and saw that the next movie in the offing for the MCU was called ‘Ant-Man’ I half-expected somebody to shout “April Fools” because that’s the dorkiest name for a superhero I think I’ve ever heard. And, as it turns out, the movie lives up to its title. Or maybe, down to it.

Our hero is Scott Something-Something, a professional burglar who has just been released from prison. He can’t hold even a nothing job, and is stuck in a crappy apartment with his three gangster bros. His ex-wife, now married to a Javert-esque cop won’t let him see his daughter until he gets back on the straight and narrow and pays child support. Driven to desperation, he is recruited by supergenius Hank Pym and his Ice Queen daughter Hope to operate an incredible shrinking suit to break into Pym’s old company and steal the prototype for a weaponized shrinking suit before it can be put on the market to the highest bidder and oh, ye gods and little demons, does this movie have a single original thought in its head?

Well, no. No it does not.

When the dorky guy who can’t hold a job and longs to be reunited with his daughter thing came up, plus the ex now married to a big manly-man jerk for good measure, I thought, “Has anyone at Marvel seen a movie since 1997?” Because this is essentially Marvel doing the plot of Liar, Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire. They only barely managed to restrain themselves from having the ex dump the big manly jerk and go back to our dorky protagonist.

Speaking of whom, if Chris Pratt in Jurassic World was generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445, then the most you can say of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man is that he’s…generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18446. He has a few clever lines and is generally pretty intelligent, but at the end of the day there’s nothing distinguished about him. He’s the standard redemption-arc action guy with a dry wit, designer stubble and who always gets the girl.

His bland white-guyness would not be so glaring were it not for the three racist stereotypes he trails around with him. His roommates – I persist in thinking of them of them as his ‘bros’ because of the way they are always hanging out in their apartment playing videogames, making waffles and giving each other braindead platitudes – are a Hispanic guy with lots of cousins who give him tips in gangster-speak about crimes to commit, an Eastern European with broken English and a dread of gypsy curses suffered by nobody since the fall of the House of Romanov, and a black guy who…is a black guy. That’s about the most you can say about him. And they drive around in a van that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you hit the horn.

I won’t say too much about this because I’m not learned enough in racial stereotyping to know whether, when I ask for characters to act less stereotypical, what I’m actually doing is not asking them to act more like middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, every minute these guys were on screen made you feel like you were about to weep blood. Their function as comic relief not only isn’t funny, but it clashes completely with the dramatic, principled side of the story. You can either have an uplifiting story about redemption and taking a stand or a madcap buddy comedy. Not both. Not this way, anyway.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is the only performance that doesn’t feel like a performance. He’s actually acting and is quite an interesting character – the anti-Tony Stark in many ways. But at the same time he’s a vehicle for more stupidity. His relationship with his daughter is so tiresome it feels like it came out of 19th Century literature. Despite her obvious skill and courage, he insists she not take up the suit, and has never opened up about the risks of the suit and the death of her mother because, in his exact words, “I was trying to protect you.” They have a tearful reconciliation moment which is then broken comically by Scott in a very Whedonesque way. Or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that up until then the writers appeared to mean it and then their alternate personalities took over and switched back to the buddy comedy thing.

Hope demonstrates repeatedly that she doesn’t need protecting, but she still steps quiescently aside at last to let the men take charge. And then she and Scott get together, despite never having had a conversation that wasn’t a tactical briefing. She’s the girl, he’s the hero, she’s his prize. Murders have been committed by guys who’ve internalized this idiotic trope, and here it is yet again, without a trace of irony or subversion. Honestly…

After the reconciliation of father and daughter, the movie ends with Pym and Hope going to work on a prototype suit Pym and Hope’s mother hadn’t finished, clearing the path for Hope to become Wasp, her mother’s old mantle, to which she responds, “about damn time.” No, writers, ‘about damn time’ would have been at the other end of this movie, before you steamrollered it into a committee-designed dramatic plateau!

When DC started getting pigheaded about a Wonder Woman movie and let fly their sexist cover art, I thought that Marvel, replete with superheroines as it is, would show us the way. Black Widow in Avengers looked like a promising start, to say nothing of Joss Whedon being in charge. However, my faith in that has deteriorated badly. I suspect that the execs aren’t letting Whedon get away with doing what he’s best at, and that the MCU at large is now so big an investment that they don’t want to risk doing anything daring, going back to ticking the same old boxes. Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two more unconventional additions to the franchise, are still a long way off and if Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then they will have to be pretty amazing to have been worth the wait.

Despite my skepticism, I wanted to give Ant-Man a fair go, but there is nothing in it. I have seldom seen a movie so undistinguished in its every slightest aspect. You could have made it twenty years ago and the only thing that would stand out would be the visual effects. The onus is on Marvel to make me want to stick with this, but if this is where they decide the gripping new direction lies, then I’m out.

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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Movie

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.

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From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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Pixar’s Brave: We Have Bears

Well, I officially have a hattrick: as of now I’ve reviewed all three of the great female heroine stories of our time: the Hunger Games, the Legend of Korra, and now Pixar’s latest feature, Brave.

Not your usual engagement party

Pixar has garnered a fine reputation for its films, which tend to be emotionally engaging, classically charming and visually stunning.

Brave is the latest in that succession, and one that seems to be garnering quite a lot of attention.

In the ancient Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, King Fergus and Queen Elinor have a daughter, the fiery-headed and fiery-hearted Princess Merida, who has grown up a master of archery and a generally devil-may-care free spirit. As she matures however, her mother begins grooming her in being a ‘proper’ princess, skilled in such pursuits as public speaking, needlework, and generally looking dignified.

Merida resents this, and it becomes a crisis when her parents break the news that the three neighbouring clans are, in accordance with tradition, coming to participate in a contest to win the lady’s hand in marriage. Merida is horrified, fearing the loss of her freedom and the violation of being married off to one of three men she’s never met.

Merida manages to delay and sabotage the process up to a point, but this break with tradition risks war with the other clans, and Elinor won’t budge on the matter. Moved to desperation, Merida finds her way to an old witch who offers her a chance to ‘change her mother.’ Purchasing the spell, she tricks her mother into using it and…well, the ‘change’ is a little more profound than she expected. Merida has to smuggle her transmogrified mum out of the castle and try and find a way to change her back, whilst at the same time trying to come to terms with the feelings that got them into this situation in the first place. To make matters worse, when the four clans aren’t trying to overthrow one another, they’re chasing after Elinor, driven by King Fergus’ obsession with slaying wild beasts, particularly Mor’du, the demon bear, whose dread influence hangs over the drama and drives the final conflict.

I knew going in that I was going to watch a kids’ movie. And that’s what I got. The story itself is very sweet, and I definitely had something in my eye towards the end there. There are some fairly clever plot elements. The story is, nevertheless, quite archetypal. There’s nothing about it that we haven’t seen before in a hundred other fairy tales and teenage rebellion stories.

Thematically, the story deals with the usual fare of choice, compromise, reconciliation and love. All good themes, but again there’s nothing overly memorable about how they’re presented.

That said it was a delightful experience. The voice talents of Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Julie Walters and Robbie Coltrane put it on a firm footing. The humour is genuinely funny, not just goofy (although there’s plenty of that too) and the music sounds genuinely Scottish, using bagpipes, fiddles and Gaelic lyrics. The graphics are a visual feast. Per the custom of Pixar, the movie comes with a short film, La Luna, which was worth the trip to the cinema on its own.

As I said in my remarks on the Legend of Korra, heroines are getting increasingly promoted front-and-centre in many recent intellectual properties. Brave wins extra points in that it is co-produced, co-written and co-directed, and originally conceived of, by women. That said, Brenda Chapman, who originally conceived the story, was replaced early-on as director by a man for ‘creative differences,’ and I’m cynical enough to consider that suspicious.

As is usual for young heroines, Merida is drawing in lots of discussion over exactly how successfully she is representing the story’s themes to young people, especially in the age where the classic Disney Princess is receiving a not-unwarranted of backlash. Fundamentally, however, in broad strokes this is meant as an empowering story, and whether or not Merida succeeds in that is not, in my opinion, something that can be stated as an absolute. That’s up to you as the audience. I would say that it worked fine, but the lack of originality in the story’s fundamentals robs it of greatness for me.

Regardless, I’m pleased that women are getting more central in popular fiction, both in the making of it as well as within the stories themselves. It’s also nice to see a princess-class character who goes through the ‘marry who I want’ type of conflict and have the answer at the end be NO ONE. One of the things that I found a little wearisome about the Legend of Korra and the Hunger Games was the romance subplot seemingly insisted on them and other YA stories as if by law. At least Brave dodges the love-triangle cliché that is becoming rife lately, albeit in favour of an arranged-marriage square, which is not, in fact, of any great importance in the long run.

Brave is very much a movie for kids, and in that realm it is functional. Worth a look, in short, but don’t ask more than it’s willing to deliver. More broadly it’s certainly a fun movie, well worth the visuals, the emotional highs and lows and especially the music.

Chase the wind and touch the sky!

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Movie

 

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