Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Punisher (2004) and Punisher: War Zone (2008)

One of my favorite characters from the Marvel world of comic books is Frank Castle, a.k.a., The Punisher.  A vigilante or anti-hero in the pages of a lot of Marvel titles, he doesn’t play by the rules of the common hero where he beats them up and takes them to jail.  No, he basically plays judge and jury, dealing justice, most times, by execution—he shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions.

The character was first seen in “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic book, number 129, back in February of 1974 and was an instant hit with Marvel fans, enjoying his vigilantism and his logo of a skull on his chest.

The character seemed ripe for a live-action film and in 1989 the first filmed adaptation was released starring Dolph Lundgren as Castle.  I remember seeing it and probably liked it at the time, but I’m sure it pretty much stinks if you were to see it today.  It wasn’t bad for your typical 80s shoot-em-up-and-blow-em-up movie, but definitely not one based on a beloved Marvel Comics character.  Lundgren didn’t even wear the skull logo in it!  It was quickly forgotten and usually isn’t brought up when speaking of comic book adaptations.

It wasn’t until fifteen years later that us comic book fans were able to finally see a decent movie based on the character.

The Punisher (2004)
When it was announced that we were going to get a live-action movie of The Punisher, I started wondering who’d be cast in the lead.  Before I could even think of who’d be right for the part, it was announced that Thomas Jane was cast as Frank Castle.  Now, at that point in my film-watching part of my life, I was only familiar with Jane as the shark wrangler in Deep Blue Sea.  With that in mind, I thought he’d be too thin and not tough enough to play the part.  However, word soon had gotten out that Jane was going through general preparation with Navy SEALs, getting familiar with all kinds of weaponry, putting on weight and going on an extensive lifting and exercise training to gain some bulk…it sounded promising.

As the film was in production, it was also revealed that John Travolta would be playing the villain, Howard Saint.  Now, I was never an avid reader of the Punisher comic book titles—if there were some cool-looking titles, I’d pick them up; sometimes The Punisher would just happen to show up in some of the other titles I had usually read.  From what I’d remember, the character of Frank Castle (The Punisher) typically took on mob bosses of Italian descent, so I’d really never remembered a Howard Saint in any of the comics I’d read.  All that said, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Travolta as the head baddie in the film.  However, since Thomas Jane wasn’t really a big name yet, the film needed some weight to get it noticed and it might’ve been a smart move to get Travolta in there.

Well, in case you haven’t seen 2004’s The Punisher, directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, let me break it down for you.

The film opens with Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison) and Bobby Saint (James Carpinello)—son of crime boss, Howard Saint (John Travolta)—attempting an illegal weapons buy from an Otto Krieg.  Unbeknownst to them, the man is an undercover FBI agent, Frank castle (Thomas Jane), and the whole purchase is an FBI sting operation.  To make it look real and to make sure nothing is traced back to Castle, he’s made to look gunned down by the surrounding agents.  However, unfortunately, Bobby Saint is killed during the
takedown.  As word gets back to Howard Saint and his wife, Livia (Laura Harring), they want revenge and soon find out that Otto Krieg is, in fact, the undercover Frank Castle.  As Castle announces his retirement and celebrates with a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint gets word of his location and sends a group of men, led by Bobby’s twin brother, John (Carpinello in a dual role) to kill Castle and his whole family.  They do just that, gunning down his whole family and running down his wife, Maria (Samantha Mathis), and son, Will (Marcus Johns).  The men also shoot Castle and leave him for dead on a boat marina as they ignite fuel poured on the dock.  As the marina explodes in a fury of fire, Castle is propelled into the water where a local, Manuel Candelaria (Veryl Jones), retrieves him and helps him recuperate back to health.  Believed to be dead, Frank Castle soon reemerges back to exact revenge as The Punisher.

First and foremost, one glaring issue this film has when looking at it as a Punisher comic book fan, is that the story takes place in Tampa Bay, Florida.  Most of the stories that I’ve read and seen in the pages of the Marvel Comics title take place in New York, so I don’t know why the writers felt they had to change the setting to Florida.  Another problem I had with the film is that they change Frank Castle’s family from a son and a daughter to having only a son (and I believe his name is changed as well).  Along the lines of the setting change, the death of his family by a mob shoot-out took place in Central Park in New York.  But seeing that the film takes place in—and around—Florida, I guess they had to improvise.

None of those issues, however, take away from the story and origin of Frank Castle’s alter ego.  Actually, instead of just the death of his wife and child, the film takes it to a whole other level by having Howard Saint massacre his mother, father, and multiple family members—including children—during the family reunion.  So it gives Castle even more of a vendetta to execute.

I liked the little father-son moment between Castle and his father, Frank Sr. (Roy Scheider), and wish there was more character development between the two together.  By the time we get to their scene, that’s when the shit hits the fan with the family massacre.  I’ve always loved Scheider even though I’ve really never seen many of his movies.  The only films I’ve seen him in are JawsJaws 2Marathon Man, and this one.  Shame on me, I guess, so I better get cracking on some of his titles.

Now, I know the characters of Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), Bumpo (John Pinette), and Joan (Rebecca Romijn) are straight out of one of the comic book title series, but it felt a little cartoonish when scenes took place around the apartment building they all lived in.  Not only that, but incorporating the character of The Russian (Kevin Nash) in the film added to that level of peculiarity as well.  I mean, when you have a huge giant of a man come into a movie with a spiky wig and a red & white striped shirt, it’s hard to take it seriously.

I think that’s where the film suffers—the constant back-and-forth from being a serious film to a comic book film.  Most of the film is a staid story of revenge, but the filmmakers felt that they had to include characters straight out of the comic book pages to the mix.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing necessarily, but the fact they made sure the characters looked EXACTLY like the comic book counterpart kind of loses some credibility.

If you’ve rented or actually own the special edition DVD or Blu-Ray, you’ll know about the extended cut of this film.  One special part of this film is the very beginning that they didn’t film, but cut together with storyboards and voiceovers from Thomas Jane and other actors.  The animated prologue shows Frank Castle during the Gulf War and how he singlehandedly takes a couple of terrorists as prisoners.  Castle’s superior wants to execute them right there on the spot, but Castle balks, saying it’s not right, that they have to take them in.  The superior agrees and as he turns to leave, one of the terrorists takes his grenade, blowing up both terrorists and the superior, killing them.  It’s a powerful scene, even if it was only some halfhearted animation, but it sent a message, foreshadowing what was to come.

Also featured on the extended cut is a subplot involving Frank’s good friend on the FBI force and who served alongside him in the military during the war, Jimmy Weeks (A. Russell Andrews).  On the theatrical cut of the film, we never find out how Howard Saint discovers Frank Castle was the undercover agent during the weapons sting that killed his son, Bobby.  We, as the audience, just assume that Saint has people and informants that find out the information.  But on the extended cut, we see that Saint has a lot of dirt on Castle’s friend, Weeks, that can get him thrown out of the FBI and arrested, leaving him no choice but to give up his friend.  In this version, Castle slowly realizes this and gives his old friend only one option when he confronts him.

I wish the filmmakers decided to cut the whole apartment building out of the movie; no Dave, no Bumpo and no Joan.  Instead, I wish they would’ve kept in the subplot of Jimmy Weeks, leaving a more serious tone to the whole film.  I mean, even though it was a good fight scene between Frank Castle and The Russian, having the whole sequence soaked with the “La Donna È Mobile” opera song and peppered with Dave and Bumpo dancing with Joan in the other apartment left it ridiculous.

Finally, Thomas Jane definitely is The Punisher.  He has the look, the seriousness to the character, and has the believability in himself to pull off the character.  He definitely threw himself into this role and I loved it.  To top it off, his outfit was great and I’m glad they didn’t give him the white gloves and boots.  The skull insignia was perfect.  I was a little worried about his look coming into this: Was he going to have a bright white skull on his chest?  Was he NOT going to wear the skull emblem?  But how they illustrated it—as a distressed and toned down logo—was perfect.

So, my final “bit” on 2004’s The Punisher?

You’ve got to remember, this is an origin story.  It’s sort of a slow burn, showing Frank Castle gaining weaponry, a car, setting up shop and gaining intelligence from an informant…but it all pays out during the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the film.  The revenge he exacts throughout that time really makes up for the wait.  It really felt like Thomas Jane put his heart into the role and it’s a shame he couldn’t return for a sequel.  Certainly a good watch, you won’t be disappointed in the story and you’ll be rooting for Frank Castle at the end.

Punisher: War Zone
It seems kind of funny when film franchises get rebooted, simply because of a few flaws filmmakers realized they’d incorrectly instituted into it the first go around.  Because with the character of Frank Castle, the only mistake that sort of bothered me was that they deleted the daughter from Castle’s family and moved his location from the New York area to Florida.  It certainly wasn’t cause for a reboot…was it?

Well, they did and what they gave us was something awfully a lot closer to the comic book pages, getting a lot of things right, but still suffering from what was wrong in the 2004 version.

One change was the director and an unusual pick at that.  I’m not chauvinistic when it comes to movie direction (look at the kick-ass job Kathryn Bigelow did with The Hurt Locker!).  But let’s face it…a movie about a man who takes the law into his own hands for a life of vigilantism, killing at will…?  I find it hard to believe that a movie studio would give that project to a woman.  But guess what?  It turns out that the director—Lexi Alexander…a woman—took this film and really gave us a comic book adaptation that had come closest to the source material.

But with all the things the production had gotten right, there was still a whole bunch they had gotten wrong.  Let’s break it down.

The film opens brilliantly with a party going on at the house of Gaitano Cesare (John Dunn-Hill), a notoriously powerful mobster recently acquitted for murder.  Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) crashes the party and starts an all-out firefight, killing everyone in sight.  One mobster, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), and a couple of his goons, are able to get away to their hideout at the local bottle recycling plant.  Castle is able
to find them and another shootout ensues, resulting in Russoti falling into the glass pit where all the recycled bottles are crushed.  Castle sees this, walks over to the controls and, with a slight smirk, flips the switch to start the machine.  Castle then realizes that one of Russoti’s goons that he killed is actually an undercover FBI agent, which causes him dismay and rethinking his position as a vigilante.  But soon, Russoti emerges and as a result of the recycling machine he fell into, Russoti’s face is cut up and disfigured.  But after having his face sewn up—which now resembles a puzzle—he calls himself Jigsaw, seeking revenge on The Punisher by any means necessary.

Now, there were quite a few things I loved about this movie.  Some were all out great; some were very bad and cringe-worthy.

As much as I liked Thomas Jane in the 2004 film, I really liked Stevenson taking over the role.  Though it seemed he had a hard time hiding his British accent at times, he still had the right look and air of the character to make me believe in this movie for the long run.  The emotion he displays, especially when he visits the gravesite of his family, was powerful and believable.  I really liked the tone that was set in his character to make his drive to be the anti-hero convincing.

I’m glad they kept the same look of the skull logo, keeping it distressed and not overly bright on his chest.  I loved the underground lair Castle set up for himself and how he makes it his home as well.  The fact that they brought the location back to the streets of New York certainly helped the feature out as well.  But if there’s anything that bothers me about this film and the sets they used was that it seemed they added a lot of fluorescent lighting.  I can’t help but conjure up images of Batman Forever, making this production look like something out of the 1990s occasionally.

The one aspect of this movie that I liked the most was the inclusion of the character of Micro (Wayne Knight).  Though they didn’t use him as much as they should have, Knight was perfect for the part.  After hearing that he was going to be in the movie, I thought I was just going to keep seeing the character of Newman in the film.  But Knight played the part straight and was very credible and beneficial to the story.

So here come a few things that undeniably went wrong…

Although only in the movie for brief moments, the little parkour gang that prefer to climb, run and jump from odd areas and heights was a little odd to feature in this film.  Speaking of someone who isn’t entirely familiar with the characters of the Punisher world, I felt their involvement in the film didn’t belong and it showed.  Even though they’re involved in awesome death scenes at the hands of Frank Castle, their odd behavior—as well as the stupid Irish accent the leader uses—grew irritating right away.

Now, from the start of the movie, when Billy Russoti is introduced, I thought his rendition of a mob hood didn’t belong.  He was way over the top, doing too strong of an east coast accent, and coming across very
cartoony.  Although he had the right look and looked fantastic when they put the prosthetics on him to change him into Jigsaw, his voice had just gotten on my nerves from the get-go. After becoming Jigsaw, he even turned it on stronger, giving us a little strut and a more exaggerated accent…I just couldn’t take him seriously.

When Russoti frees his brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), from the mental institution, the film even gets worse with both of them acting like overly-animated idiots.  The whole scene in the hotel, where Hutchison’s character throws himself at all of the mirrors so that Jigsaw won’t have to look at his reflection was grating and senseless.  I think it would’ve been a much cooler scene if one of them pulled out a gun and shot them all out.  However, that’s not the worst of it, because there’s a montage scene where both of them go out recruiting gangs to join them in taking out Castle that is so ridiculous.

All in all, it seems like two movies spliced together; one half being a serious in tone type of thrilling drama, the other an action comedy of sorts.  It really seemed like the studio wanted to make sure that the film had a comedic side to it to make up for the carnage that The Punisher causes.  Even though this film was released in late 2008, I’m sure the studio was aware of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and how the character of The Joker was going to be featured.  My guess is that they wanted to have their own rendition in this film, resulting in Jigsaw’s performance.  I mean, the scene where Russoti’s bandages are removed is almost the exact same scene where Nicholson’s Joker has his bandages removed in Tim Burton’s Batman.  It’s quite obvious and could’ve been done differently.

So, my final “bit” on Punisher: War Zone?

The parts of the film involving Frank Castle’s version of justice as he blows away anyone who’s involved with crime with complete attrition is awesome!  The opening scene, alone, sets up what you’re going to see from him throughout this story, as he shows no fear and stands up to crime in brutal fashion.  You may be edged away from the film when you watch Dominic West’s performance as Russoti/Jigsaw, but then again, maybe you’ll like the comedic take.  Generally speaking, the film is enjoyable and fun, with justice being dealt swiftly and violently by Frank Castle—The Punisher!

As a side “bit” regarding Thomas Jane and his involvement in the first film, it was believed that he didn’t care much for the character and was in it for the money, only to walk away because he wasn’t able to get the figures he wanted for the sequel.  Other reports state that the sequel had been in development for too long so he dropped out to pursue other projects.  Well, a couple of years ago, a film short, called Dirty Laundry, was released that may change your mind about Thomas Jane and may have you see him as being totally devoted to the character of The Punisher.  It’s a terrific short that had been released during the 2012 Comic Con in San Diego by filmmaker, Phil Joanou (known for 2006’s Gridiron Gang).  At first, when watching Dirty Laundry, I thought it wasn’t going to refer to The Punisher character at all.  But the ending definitely solidifies that we had just witnessed Frank Castle serving justice the only way he knows how.

I wish they would include this short in a special edition Blu-Ray of the 2004 film, but I’m sure rights issues will prevent it.  If you look at the Punisher films in IMDb, it’s interesting to see what each film rates with fans.  Out of ten stars, the Lundgren 1989 vehicle has 5.6, Thomas Jane’s 2004 film gets 6.4, Ray Stevenson’s version gets 6.0, and Dirty Laundry has a whopping 8.2!  That, right there, tells you something.  But…in the meantime, check it out on YouTube.

One other thing…

Artisan Entertainment, and then Lions Gate, had held the rights to the character, only to lapse last year.  I believe a new movie had to be made by 2013 for them to keep the rights, but I don’t think they were happy with the returns from the box office of the 2004 and 2008 films.  So, Marvel Studios now has the rights back to the character.  What does this mean?  For all intents and purposes, if Marvel wanted, they could include the character in their cinematic universe, having Frank Castle exist in the same movies as any one of The Avengers.  Whether it may or may not happen (it probably won’t, since he’s seen as a murderer in the eyes of the law and probably wouldn’t be allowed to fight alongside of the team), there’s actually a television series in development, going straight to Netflix, with some exciting cast members already tied down.  More on that in the future.

Well, that’s it until I write up a new post on another movie.  Thanks for reading and see you next time.

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jaws 3-D

Similar to what we’re experiencing these days at the theaters, the 80s saw an eruption of 3D films being released.  As my formative years took place in that decade, I took advantage of the time by going to see quite a few movies and was able to see three of those films in 3D.  Two were memorable and one was very forgettable—so forgettable that I had to look up the list of 3D films from the 1980s to see what was the name of that movie (it was Treasure of the Four Crowns, a Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off that put me to sleep when I watched it).  But the two films I’d enjoyed during that wave of 3D releases was Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3-D.

As I’d mentioned, Friday the 13th Part III was in 3D and, for the most part, had terrible three-dimensional scenes.  I remember just getting a headache from the glasses as it seemed that everything was out of whack.  When a year went by, however, and Jaws 3-D was released to theaters, I was amazed by the 3D effects and still remember, to this day, how the audience reacted to the film—I even recalled the two girls that happened to be sitting in front of me and how they screamed at some parts and reached out towards the screen in others. 

However, just like today, the film was shot in 3D so we wouldn’t notice how bad the movie really was.  It was a gimmick and a pretty good one (I still remember that opening shot where the fish head floated towards the audience—I could’ve sworn that thing was right in front of me!), so much so that I didn’t even notice how bad the movie had been (Avatar anybody?). 

Well, before I get into it too much, let me synopsize the story for you.

Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid), son of Amity Island police chief, Martin Brody, is all grown up now and is the chief engineer of Seaworld in Florida, working alongside his girlfriend, Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong), who
is the senior biologist of the park.  Just like in Amity Island all those years ago, a Great White shark—this one, 35 feet in length—is able to get into the park’s lagoon and wreak havoc within the park.  With the waterski entertainers at risk and park patrons stuck in an underwater observatory, Mike and Kay must try and stop the unrelenting threat.

You know, it wasn’t until years later, when I was able to purchase this film on home media, that I discovered how mediocre this entry had been.  I guess I was carried away as a 12-year-old to see such a spectacle, with the 3D effects being very well done and in your face.  Now, when popping in this DVD, I find myself bored at times, looking at my phone for sports scores or checking social media sites rather than paying full attention to the film.  It’s one thing when you’re sitting in a dark movie theater with 3D glasses on, having everything seeming to float in front of you, and another to watch this two-dimensionally on your television at home during the day.

Now, there are pros and cons about this film, having some merits here and there, but then having those qualities becoming meaningless by the flaws of the film. 

I guess it was a good choice to bring the characters of Mike Brody and his younger brother, Sean (John Putch), into the story.  It was a nice tie to the first two films, but paper-thin at best.  The whole plot of a shark getting into the lagoon of an ocean-based amusement park was pretty ingenious, even adding the underwater attraction for added danger and eerie views of the shark.  Although the film being shot in 3D was most definitely a gimmick, it was a nice touch to give the audience a sense of how it’d be like swimming around in the depths of the ocean.

Unfortunately, this film hasn’t aged well, especially with the special effects.  The use of a mechanical shark in the water doesn’t seem to be the preferred method of displaying the creature in this film.  Instead, it appears they used one in front of a blue screen and superimposed it onto oceanic scenes.  The same goes for the underwater observatory, dubbed the “Undersea Kingdom,” where it looks like some bad blue screen was utilized to get those shots as well.  Finally, the shark doesn’t seem that menacing at all, shown to swim around very slowly and baring its teeth at times—it appears that most people in danger could easily outswim the beast if they really wanted to.  One scene, in particular, shows Bouchard’s friend, the well-known hunter, Philip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale), swimming ahead of the shark very slowly and taking photos of it when they’re trapping it in a pump tunnel.  The shark just floats forward at a fraction of a knot or so with FitzRoyce easily pulling himself along by his lifeline.  When the rope breaks free, he panics and practically swims into the shark’s mouth.

I understand certain shots needed to be filmed the way they were in order to have the 3D effects stand out, but Friday the 13th Part III did a better job of it even though their three-dimensional filming was worse.
As for any character development, you would think there’d be quite a bit.  Now that I’m older and appreciate the drama between the human characters of the first film—as well as a little of the second—it would’ve been nice to have a little exchange between the brothers, Mike and Sean.  It’s touched upon a little of how Sean is afraid of the water—especially the ocean—and that was a chance for the filmmakers to maybe have a little exposition between them, having them talk about what they’d gone through in the second film.  How much better would Sean’s character have been if we saw how scarred he still was?  If he would’ve expressed his fear of the water by talking out his near-death experience, explaining the psychological trauma of being on those wrecked sail boats and seeing a couple of people killed by a shark.  Instead, he mentions it—as well as Mike—but then it’s soon forgotten.

Without getting too much further into this review, let me give you my final “bit” on Jaws 3-D.

In comparison to the first two films of the franchise, this film is a cheesy dud, worth a watch but maybe with
some buddies over to laugh it out.  The story was a novel idea but executed poorly, surrounded by stupid plotlines and characters you really don’t care about.  The acting was horrible by some cast members (Louis Gossett Jr. always gets on my nerves in this one when I hear his phony Louisiana drawl), yet some weren’t so bad.

But I’ll leave you with a couple of things to note...

First, Jaws 3-D looks like a masterpiece when comparing it to the final sequel, Jaws: The Revenge—stay away from that stinker.  I’m not even going to attempt to review that one since I’ve only seen it once—and believe me…once was more than enough.

Second, the movie was actually pitched as a comedy, sort of a spoof on the Jaws saga, with National Lampoon being involved.  The title is actually pretty funny—Jaws 3, People 0.  Some items of note to be involved in the story was author Peter Benchley being eaten in his pool by a shark and Bo Derek running around naked.  After seeing how the movie actually turned out, I would’ve preferred the National Lampoon version.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the movies!

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy

Last year, there was an original film that I had been looking forward to seeing when they first teased us with trailers and television spots.  It seemed like a good concept and gave us some eerie visuals while presenting a simple, yet frightening, story set-up.  2013's The Purge, a futuristic tale, set around 2022, has the USA's government, the "New Founding Fathers of America" allowing a nationwide purge where any criminal activity is legal for a 12-hour period.  So anyone, anywhere, can murder, rape, steal, etc., with no repercussions.  The film, starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey was good, but a bit on the claustrophobic side, with the action (what there was of it) staying inside their home and never leaving to see what was going on outside.  This year's sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, corrects that problem and goes full bore with some exciting visuals and formidable situations that our protagonists go through.

The film mainly centers around a man named Leo (Frank Grillo) as he's shown at home, getting some firearms together, shortly before the annual purge is about to start.  As he looks upon a photograph of himself and a young buy who we assume is his son that died, we see he's purposely going out into the city to
do some purging on whoever's responsible (we assume).  As the purge begins, Leo drives out into the city's downtown area and grudgingly saves the lives of a mother and daughter, Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul), who were about to be seized by some men in armor as they were being forcibly led into a big truck.  Before getting away from the scene, another couple who had broken down in their car not far from the downtown area, Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), end up with Leo as well.  He's now faced with helping these people to safety as he wants to finish what he came out to start...to purge on the one who wronged him.

I must say that this sequel surpasses the first film threefold.  Remembering what I felt was wrong with the original was fully corrected here in this sequel.  Don't get me wrong, the first film was a whole different subgenre as it was more of a home invasion type of story, whereas this sequel was something different all together.  You can't really call it an action movie, although there are some shoot-outs and some car chase scenes, and it's really not a horror movie per se.  I guess the best category I can give this film is a dark dystopian thriller.

Frank Grillo has had bit parts in his career, but I remember most of them in some good movies.  He played the asshole-turn-good-guy in The Grey, had a pretty good part in the Mother's Day remake, and was pretty good as Brock Rumlow/Crossbones in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  But in The Purge: Anarchy, he is awesome as the title character of Leo.  You get a sense that he's a Frank Castle/Punisher type of man in this film as he had lost a family member to someone's wrong-doing and he's just throwing himself out into hell in order to get revenge.  As the first part of the film goes along, you think he might as well be the Punisher as he's dressed in black, has some awesome firepower, and definitely has some defensive and offensive skills.  And that's what the first film needed—someone to cheer for.  In the original, everyone sort of waited around, trying to stay safe in the house, while Leo went out and kicked some ass in this sequel.  Grillo took this part and made it his own.

In the first film, we only get a taste of what went on outside of the home, seeing news footage that the main
characters are watching while they're staying safe behind their secured doors and windows.  But in this sequel, we, the audience, are brought out into the open, seeing every terrible crime happen in front of our faces.  We feel the tension and fear the main characters are feeling as they try to dodge the purgers and make their way to safety.  Every situation the characters get themselves into, whether it's meant to be in a safe place or out on the streets, we just know something bad's about to happen and it keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Usually I see something in a film that I can hone in on and complain about, but not with The Purge: Anarchy.  From start to finish, I loved this film and thought to myself that I'll certainly buy this one on home media.  I never felt that way about the first one and, as it stands, I never bought the Blu-Ray of that one.  However, seeing that this sequel doesn't have the number 2 in it, you can treat this as a stand-alone film.  With that said, in case you wondered to yourself if you'd needed to watch the first one before watching this one, the answer is no.  You get enough info about what the purge is just by seeing the movie trailers, let alone the beginning of the film, so you really don't need to sit through the Ethan Hawke starrer.

With the original, you don't get much of what the purge is about, only that it's a government sanctioned event to rid the country of some of the low-lifes that plague our cities and neighborhoods.  In the sequel, the reasoning goes a bit further and has big political and social rationale involved.  The first film touched on it a bit, but not as much as it does here.

Although the plot centers around Leo and his quest to get revenge, there are also two other stories woven around his plight.  The two women who he saves from certain death were actually going through the turmoil of losing a close part of their family, while Shane and Liz were on their way to getting separated.  Now, the couple probably could've been left out of the story altogether, but the family member Eva and Cali lost had a lot to do with the purge and it's a pretty sickening look into the depravity of it.

Director and writer James DeMonaco definitely does it right this time, as he gives us more to see and understand.  As I'd said, in the first one, he kept the story isolated and from the point-of-view of characters hiding from the terrible goings-on outside of their safety zone.  So the natural progression of this story is to stick us right in the middle of it, seeing the worst of what happens.

Anyway, my final "bit" on The Purge: Anarchy?

A very good film, improving on the original wholeheartedly and with gusto.  Frank Grillo positively has the acting chops for the leading man and I'm glad he finally has a film he front-runs.  All characters in this sequel are interesting and you really care about what happens to them, because you can't help but put yourself in their position.  The sequel takes the great idea from the original and runs with it, full throttle.  If you're a sucker for thrillers, this film should not be missed.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A few years ago, I’d cited that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the best movie I had seen that year.  What made it extra special was it surpassed my expectations dramatically with its interesting story and awesome special effects.  Rise was one movie that brought me to feeling like a kid again while watching it. 
So, here I was again, feeling anxious as I’d seen all the trailers and TV spots, showing us what was to come with the awaited sequel, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

My initial reaction and anticipation before seeing it today was that it was going to be a worthy sequel, but not as good as the 2011 film.  All praise went to Rupert Wyatt, back then, for his direction and vision of that film, as he gave us one hell of an Ape story to see.  It was thought he’d return for the sequel, but for whatever reason he didn’t (I heard he felt he couldn’t make the rushed release date set by Fox).  So enter Matt Reeves, hot from 2008’s Cloverfield and 2010’s Let Me In.  Both films, I thought, were terrific and I saw that Reeves had a good mind for what a moviegoer wanted to see in those genre movies.  Still, I had my doubts, thinking that the magic of the first film was credited to Rupert Wyatt, but after seeingDawn of the Planet of the Apes, I now see that my doubts—as bleak as they stood—were totally speculative.

The film opens ten years after what transpired at the end of the 2011 film as humankind was wiped out by the ALZ113 virus, but dubbed the Simian Flu.  The apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), have been living in the Muir Woods and establishing it as their home.  But as it turns out, mankind was not completely
extinguished, as a group of people who are immune to the virus have made a colony in San Francisco.  Fuel is running out and they want to restore the hydroelectric facility within the apes’ territory.  Caesar allows it, but because of distrust among the humans and apes, it leads to a war between them.

First off, I’m glad they went with the jump to a decade later, rather than showing the human side of the story and how the virus destroyed them.  I believe if they went with that, it would be too long of an exposition that would take the story away from the apes.  The animated end credits scenes in the first film, as well as the beginning credits of this film, give us enough information about what had happened to everyone.  Even if they chose not to display those graphics of how the sickness spread, the scene at the end of Rise, where the airline pilot obviously caught the virus, would be enough for us to understand that the world’s population had snuffed out.

I’ve got to admit, I was a bit skeptical about what the story was going to be about.  With the trailers that we’ve been treated to in the past year, it sort of misled us.  When viewing them it made Caesar look like he was for the war, but you understood that he was forced to do so by the actions of Gary Oldman’s character, Dreyfus.  Seeing how Oldman acted in the trailer, made him look a bit one-dimensional.  But all that was a good thing because I hate it when trailers nearly give the whole story within it and almost make you want to avoid the film.  So even if you’ve seen most of the previews, you’ll still feel like you’re going into this film fresh and without any preconceived notions.  All in all, you’ll be surprised when you see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Speaking of Gary Oldman, he doesn’t have much to do in this film and I was hoping to see a bit more of him or that the film would flesh out his backstory as we see—through photos on a tablet that he powers up—he had lost a family to the virus outbreak.  It’s actually a powerful scene, seeing him break down and cry…you feel the film will center on him when the human side of the film progresses.  But I guess the filmmakers, instead, decided to focus the story on the character of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the human who connects with Caesar and believes they can all coexist in peace together.  Clarke does a fine job and fills that gap that James Franco left behind.

One thing you’ll find yourself doing—especially if you’re a fan of special effects like me—is trying to decipher how the apes were rendered while watching the movie.  The CGI and motion capture combination used in this film is magnificent!  All the apes that are represented using mo-cap look so friggin’ real that it nearly blows my mind.  The close-ups are incredible and look so damned real, they all look like real chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.  Some scenes show Caesar standing, with the wind blowing across
him, and you can see every strand of fur moving.  The very start of the film opens with a very tight close-up of his face and you can see every wrinkle, every blemish or scar, the eyeballs moving perfectly with the eyelids…it’s so fantastic, it must be seen to believe.  The end shot is the most spectacular shot I’ve seen of any CGI’d character…you’ll see what I mean when you watch this.

As in all of Andy Serkis’s motion capture performances, he is awesome once again as Caesar, making the character his own.  Along with him, we get quite a few other great performances that surpassed the first film.  Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bit more fleshed out and voices his opinion—literally—about the humans and how he distrusts them and the performance by the actor is right up there with Serkis’s Caesar, especially a scene where Caesar tells Koba to let Malcolm and his people to do their “human work.”  You find yourself siding with Koba when he points to various scars on his body as he angrily repeats the words, “human work,” to each one.

The sets and backgrounds of the apes’ home are so organic and realistic—a fitting setting for the characters to live.  Where the humans make their home, a colony made within some buildings in San Francisco, is almost the contrast of the apes’ preserve.  But it comes with similarities, too, as there appears to be a lot of overgrown weeds, brush and foliage growing throughout the walls and streets of the humans’ area.  On top of that, it definitely gives you the sense that the world all went to hell as we see how the city is overrun by vegetation.  A great example in the film is a 76 Gas Station that seems to be placed in the middle of a forest, but then you realize the forest grew around the service station.

For an all-out Apes film, there is still quite a lot of emotion contained within it.  It helps that Caesar now has a family with a mate, Cornelia (Judy Greer), and an older son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston).  In the first minutes of the film, Caesar and Cornelia welcome another son into their world, giving even more emotion as he witnesses the birth.  It’s understood that Caesar does not hate all humans, especially remembering how he was brought up by one.  And we see that when he gives them some slack when they first intrude onto their territory.  However, most of the apes that he leads have contempt for the humans and it’s fueled even more by Koba’s hatred towards them.  On top of that, you sense the unsettled sentiment Caesar feels as he sees that his son has contempt for the humans as well, especially when he fails to change his son’s mind.

As a whole, the film doesn’t make the whole human race an evil entity, and it displays the apes the same way.  During the film, we already know that, yet we see the characters from both species having trouble seeing that.  Instead, they draw a line in the sand, thinking their own are good while the others are bad.  On that note, we can understand the animosity that some of the humans feel as they’re used to these creatures being contained and controlled by humans before the world went to hell and now they’re becoming the dominant beings.  We also understand the apes’ point of view where a lot of them were—in their mind—prisoners of the humans as they were kept in cages most of their lives.  So one really can’t go to this movie and expect the humans or apes to be the protagonists, and vice versa.

Overall, Matt Reeves took what Rupert Wyatt did in the first and seamlessly directed an earnest sequel that’s exciting and moving.  Although he had a wonderful “human” cast to work with, the movie wouldn’t be what it was if it weren’t for the great motion capture acting of Andy Serkis et al.

If there’s one thing that I can nitpick—it’s so minor and really won’t take you out of the movie—is the non-motion-capture CGI rendering.  Near the beginning we see a herd of deer running about, as well as a grizzly bear, and it’s a little off-putting because CGI was used to display them and it’s just not perfect.  Even the animation of Caesar’s new born son is just a little on the cartoon side.  But like I had said, these scenes shouldn’t bother you at all…just some things I wanted to point out.

So, what’s my final “bit” on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?

The movie is the best I’ve seen during this summer blockbuster period, making the others, so far, pale in comparison.  The special effects are great and it just leaves me wanting more.  The next sequel has already been greenlit for 2016, so be ready!  Dawn is a movie that shouldn’t be missed!

As a side bit, I had heard there was an after-credits stinger, so I decided to look it up online.  I’d read that it was just some audio that you’ll hear, but no visual scene, so I decided to walk out before it happened.  I won’t tell you what it is, but I just wanted to warn you that if you were going to wait a few minutes through a bunch of credits, you weren’t going to see anything.  However, it’s a bit interesting and it’s actually open to interpretation, from what I’ve read.

Anyway, that’s it for now and I’ll be back soon!

Thanks for reading!

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Godfather: Part III

Back in late 1989—or it might’ve been early 1990—it was announced that another sequel to The Godfather was going to be released, causing a lot of excitement in the world of cinema.  I had heard a lot of good things and high praise about the works of Francis Ford Coppola, yet I hadn’t seen any of his movies at that point in my life.  I knew of the first two Godfather films and how they were considered classics, but I had also heard they were epically lengthy films to sit through.  At that time, the only contact I’d had with those films was walking into the family room while my father was watching the first film on Showtime one night.  I was around eleven at that time—probably 1980 or 1981and sat on the couch, watching it for a while up until the reveal of the horse’s decapitated head in Waltz’s bed.  I’m sure my father saw how horrified I was and ordered me to get to bed.  So, years later, when The Godfather: Part III was a few months away from being released, I decided to rent the first two films so I can go into the new sequel with the knowledge necessary.

Now, I’m not even going to try to discuss the first two films because they are so masterfully crafted and critics have been talking about these films for decades.  I love and cherish those two films and watch them—including part three—annually.  The first one is such a great story with all the players involved together in a great production.  The second one is probably my favorite Robert De Niro role he has ever played.  But the third one is why I’m writing this, because I just want to see if I can nail down what is wrong with The Godfather: Part III.

To recap, very quickly, the first film is Michael’s rise to take over the Corleone crime family, wiping out all the family’s enemies; the second is a back-and-forth story—showing in the past—Vito’s journey to America and how he rose to be as powerful as he became, while Michael’s present-day story deals with a big deal he has with Hyman Roth and how he deals with the betrayal of his brother, Fredo.

The third story, here, in part three, is somewhat interesting.  Twenty years later, Michael Corleone (Pacino) is finally achieving his goal his father—and then himself—has wanted since the start: for the Corleone family to be completely legitimate.  After a Catholic ceremony, where Michael is given a medal naming him
Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian, we’re introduced to Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone, at an after-party.  Also at the reception, is Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who has taken over the Corleone’s crime businesses in New York and has beef with Vincent.  Michael decides to take Vincent under his wing and into the family.  While trying to seal a deal with the Vatican to buy their shares in an international real estate holding company called Immobiliare—and after a hit on most of the current crime leaders, found out to be ordered by Joey Zasa—Micahel suffers a diabetic stroke and is hospitalized.  With an okay from Connie (Talia Shire) and Al Neri (Richard Bright), Vincent organizes the elimination of Zasa.  Michael, much better but still in the hospital, chastises Vincent, Connie and Al for the hit.  As Michael is improved in health, he continues his quest to establish the shares in Immobiliare as troubles arise in that goal.  Trying to become a legitimate family, Michael soon finds himself back where he started.

Man, that was exhausting…and that was only the tip of the iceberg.  The story is really involved and for a complete set-up of the whole story, it’d take many more pages.  Not only that, but it’d give away too much of the story; with all its faults, it's still a good story.

My goal in writing about The Godfather: Part III is to point out what I think went wrong with it, since so many Godfather enthusiasts—including myself—sort of loathe this film.  When I first watched the film, when it was released in theaters, I loved it and saw nothing wrong with it.  As time went on, however, I had started to see that the film was inferior to the first two.  I couldn’t see how that was so, but I concluded long ago that it perhaps the length of time between part two and part three (sixteen years).  But watching it just the other day, it became a little clearer, especially after watching the entire trilogy, back-to-back-to-back.  So I guess I’ll go over what I had noticed, point by point.

I love how the film starts, showing the abandoned Lake Tahoe compound with the voice-over narrative of Al Pacino as Michael writing to his children.  Even when the film finally opens with Michael receiving his medal from the church, and the party that followed afterwards, was nice.  I think what bothered me was Pacino’s performance as Michael throughout the film.  He didn’t seem like the same brooding Michael we saw at the end of part two or even how serious he was through both parts one and two.  Now I know people change over the years and take on different characteristics as they get older, but it just concerned me somewhat.  Pacino always seemed to have a twinkle in his eyes when he should be dead serious, although he put on the Pacino rage when necessary.

Andy Garcia was a breath of fresh air when he’s first shown on screen as the bad boy (illegitimate) son of Sonny, who totally embodied his father’s persona and charm.  When he first walks in with the swagger of an Italian hood, starting shit right away, I loved it.  When he comes in to Michael’s study with the confrontation of Joey Zasa, I’d thought to myself that the film was going in the right direction.  Even the scene at his apartment with the reporter, Grace (Bridget Fonda), and how he takes out the thugs that were there to kill him...awesome!  Of course, his involvement in the whole Zasa murder scene was memorable—but not as memorable as the assassination scene in part two (which it seems they tried to duplicate here).  But once Garcia’s character is part of the Corleone family, he seems neutered and not as exciting; he’s actually boring as he just glares, stares and overacts.  It just doesn’t seem plausible that he goes from this street-thuggish personality to a sudden calm and collected nobleman.  The one scene that bothers me and sticks out as Garcia hamming it up is when he tells Connie he’ll take care of everything.  It’s so drawn out and made to look like some dramatic scene, but there’s no reason for him to act that way as he stares at her intensely and kisses her hand (a little too enthusiastically, I might add).

Of course, the one thing that’s pointed out every time this film is discussed is the performance of Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter, Mary.  Yes, her delivery of lines isn’t the best and some of her gestures, both facial and bodily, are a bit subpar, but I would never put all of the film’s inadequacies on her.  If anything, she stepped in when the original actress, Winona Ryder, backed out (so that she could take the part in Edward Scissorhands)she should be cut some slack.

As a whole, it really seems at times that the script was written right before some of these scenes were shot.  Most of the dialogue sounds as if the actors were reading it from cue cards and don’t have too much emphasis where it’s needed.  Awkward moments fill a lot of the scenes, sometimes having time drawn out when it probably should’ve been edited shorter (it almost seems like Paramount wanted to make sure this film equaled the running time of its predecessors).  When watching this film more than once, you find a lot of mistakes in continuity and editing.  For instance, after the scene plays out with Michael telling Mary she should stop seeing Vincent (with her awkwardly running away like one of the Brady kids), it finishes with Michael’s son, Tony (Franc D’Ambrosio), telling his dad that she’ll understand as time goes on.  We go to a few other scenes, obviously with some time—even days—going by, then there’s a scene with Michael and his son.  If you look carefully, they’re wearing the same outfits and sitting in the same spot as before.  Upon further examination and after multiple viewings, when the first scene plays out, you see Tony holding a piece of paper; in the later scene, Michael gives him the picture Tony drew as a child…which was the paper he held previously.  So actually, the chronological order should’ve been swapped.  That’s just a minor observation, however, and not that big a deal.  But when the seeing the whole film and noticing some of the other timing problems (whether too long or in weird order), I thought I’d point that out as an example.

Overall, I do enjoy this film and enjoy the many merits it does have.  For instance, I love that they bring a lot of characters—besides some of the main players—back from the previous movies…or even characters related to characters from the first two films.  Although most were cameos—like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei), Sonny’s mistress Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), and Johnny Fontane (Al Martino)—seeing them made a nice connection to the older movies.  Even bringing back Michael’s bodyguard, Calo (Franco Citti), when he was in Sicily during the first film, was cool, especially since he had a hand in a part of the climax of the film. 

Like the first part of the film, the climax was also well done and was probably the high point of the movie.  If you can withstand the operatic theme involved, the whole suspenseful act as the assassins are trying to kill Michael was done very well.

So, the answer to my question—What’s wrong with The Godfather: Part III?—is not easily answered.  Vaguely, I can say that the whole middle part of the film is where it goes wrong.  It seemed as if it were hastily filmed and didn’t have much care into it.  As I’d mentioned, I think a lot of it was padded to try and duplicate the epic feel the first two films had succeeded in doing.  However, instead of it feeling epic, it felt boring at times.  If only Coppola would’ve taken a little more time with the middle third of the film and shortened some scenes, this could’ve been his return to glory.  Instead, as most critics probably would’ve said at the time, Coppola just couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle for a third time.

Well, with all that said and done, what’s my final “bit” on The Godfather: Part III?

Before even watching this film, I highly, HIGHLY, recommend that you watch the first two films more than once.  The stories involved are so great and in-depth that you want to watch it a few times to get to know all the characters involved.  It’s not to say it’s too complicated of a plot, it’s just as you’re getting into it, you may not absorb all that the films have to offer.  Brando and Pacino’s performances in the first, with De Niro’s in the second, are really what acting is all about.  At nearly three hours each movie, it’s going to take you some time, so get ready for an adventure that may change your life.  It did for me.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Jaws 2

Summer is finally here and as I break out my warm-weather titles for some summertime viewing, Jaws is usually the title I’m watching first and foremost.  But as the end credits roll soon after the hero (spoiler alert) blows up the dreaded shark by firing a bullet into the scuba air tank it has in its mouth, I feel that I want more and decide to pop in the sequel to 1975’s blockbuster…1978’s Jaws 2.

Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and realizing that Steven Spielberg started a trend called the “Summer Blockbuster,” Universal Studios decided to green light a sequel to keep everyone afraid of swimming in the ocean.  With most of the cast from the original film still on board to be featured in a follow-up, everything seemed to be in place to repeat the success of the 1975 hit.  However, Spielberg—as well as Richard Dreyfuss—couldn’t be available for this film, due to them both working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so when viewing the movie, their absence certainly shows. 

With all that aside, the film is a worthy successor and is very engaging and captivating, entertaining the notion as to what would happen if another Great White Shark were to terrorize the same oceans of the same Amity Island four years after the first one.

The film opens with a couple of divers discovering the wreckage of the Orca, examining the boat and taking photos of their find.  Soon, a shark swims up and kills the men while their camera randomly flashes away a few times as it floats away.  The scene cuts to life on Amity Island and how Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), seem to be back to normal with everything that had happened
years previous.  But the divers’ boat is found abandoned, their camera found on the ocean floor, and when the film is developed, Chief Brody is certain he can see a shark in one of the photos.  When unexplained accidents start happening, resulting in the deaths of a few people—as well as a killer whale that washes up on shore—Chief Brody is certain Amity Island is about to have the same problem they’d had four years prior.

Although this film is thrilling and fun to watch, it still doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s original film.  Character development and plot focus doesn’t appear to be as important in this film and that’s one thing Spielberg is praised for in nearly all his films.  For him, it was always about the characters first, giving them development that the audience will relate to and care for when bad things happen.  In this sequel, everyone is sort of thrown in the loop just to have them there and doing what they’re written to do.  Even the reveal of the shark seems a little much, pushed in the film a little too much, and that plays against the realism of the film. 

The first third of the film seems to revolve around Chief Brody and how his world is turned upside-down as he believes the island is going to have another shark problem.  What’s worse is that he not only has to argue his case with Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), but also with one of the lead councilmen and investor in a new resort being planned for the town, Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo).  You can imagine what it’d do to a person to go through what he had in the first film to believe he’s going to go through it again, as well as having no one believing him…it’d drive a person nearly crazy. 

The second third of the film then takes turns with looking at both Brody and his son, Mike (Mark Gruner), and that’s where there’s not too much character development.  We get that Mike and his friends are all into sailing and that’s what they all do during the summer, but we don’t really get to know all of them.  It’d probably take too long anyway, but it would have been nice to get to know most of them.  Instead, we get a little bit of paper-thin categorization of some of them—the shy nerdy guy, the hot-headed jock type, the new girl who Mike happens to like—but those are the only ones we get to know and care about…somewhat.

The last third of the film—everything that builds to the climax as well as the climax itself—was great, showing everything falling into place as Brody’s opinion that a shark has returned to Amity Island is solidified and brought to alarming light.  Though I was a bit let down that Brody couldn’t throw that in Peterson’s face
when he’s proven to be right all along (I was hoping that he’d punch him in the face before heading out to save his sons and their friends), it was still a brilliant ending, similar to what we had seen in the first film’s ending, and I was very satisfied.

Besides a few minor critiques that I’d mentioned throughout, there are still a lot of positives during the course of the film.  Coming back to Amity Island, using most of the location areas in Martha’s Vineyard from the first film was nice.  We, as an audience, love that we’re back to an acquainted place with familiar people, caring about them and hoping they don’t fall prey to the new threat in the ocean.  If the film moved to a different location all together, as they did in the next sequel, Jaws 3, we’d lose that familiarity and be put off by the story.  So, coming back to the small town, as if we’ve returned to an accustomed vacation spot, feels great to see.

Roy Scheider, above all else, was what made this movie and saved it from being an uninteresting sequel.  Even though it’s been said that he didn’t want to return for the sequel, but signed on to square things with Universal Studios after he dropped out of another film, he still put on a hell of a performance and seemed like he had a lot of fun doing so. 

The film includes some great shark attack scenes and seems pretty real, making you cringe at times and getting your blood pumping as the scenes get tense.  All in all, the film sets the fear that had been instilled in us from the first film, showing us that anything can be lurking underneath us when we decide to swim, sail, or even waterski in the ocean.

One thing you don’t see (or hear) happening too much these days is John Williams scoring a movie sequel.  He created such an atmosphere in the original and does the same here in Jaws 2.  Although it seems to be the same music from the first film, it’s better than having a new composer try to rehash Williams’ score or make up an entirely new one.  Williams’ composition for this film is yet another saving grace for this film.
So…my final “bit” on Jaws 2?

A well-intentioned sequel that walks the line, riskily close to being the exact same film as part one.  It’s a lot of fun and is more of a visual take on the story of a shark terrorizing an island community with not much on human narrative (where Spielberg excels in his films).  The additional sequels had just seemed repetitive, since they’d made an additional two, so I wished they would’ve stopped here.
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