Protecting the Universe

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Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



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Life in the ’Hood

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I’m always a little skeptical about a film that relies too much on a gimmick. Can the film stand on its own? That’s what I want to know. I’m happy to say that Boyhood, one of the most anticipated indie films of the century (okay, the century is only 14 years old) can indeed stand on its own. The gimmick is this: instead of using multiple actors or makeup and prosthetics to portray the same character at different ages, director Richard Linklater decided to film this movie over the course of 12 years, while using the same actors. The result is a series of 12 vignettes chronicling the experiences of a sometimes-single mother (Patricia Arquette); her two children, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and their father (Ethan Hawke).

Linklater is one of the most innovative directors of the independent film movement. His sprawling, virtually plotless Slacker (1991) gave rise to the term that many used to define a generation. A Scanner Darkly experimented with new techniques that turned live action into animation, while Bernie experimented with combining documentary and scripted narrative. Several of his films take place in one 24-hour period (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, to name a few.) So why not experiment with the idea of taking 12 years to film a movie that covers 12 years?

Movie geeks have been waiting eagerly for the release of this film. I saw it on opening night in a gigantic downtown theater that was virtually filled to capacity. I was not disappointed.

Much can happen over the course of 12 years. People change. Sometimes they become famous. Sometimes they fall into addictions or ill health. Sometimes they die. Kids who seem cute and precocious at age five may become dull and leaden actors at age ten or 12. (I suspect the producers of Modern Family have serious “buyers’ regret” over the choice of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily — but how could they have known when she was a cute little toddler that she would grow up without an ounce of acting ability?)

Linklater could not have known, for example, that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture would go to a film called Twelve Years a Slave, making it necessary for him to change his working title, Twelve Years, to the more generic and certainly less interesting Boyhood, in order to avoid confusion. He also didn’t know that Arquette would end up starring in a hit TV show (Medium) or that his daughter Lorelei would lose interest in the project and beg him to kill off her character (I won’t tell you how that family tiff was resolved). Nor did he anticipate that it would take nearly three hours to tell the story sufficiently. Or that Ellar Coltrane would turn out to be exactly the right actor to stand at the heart of Boyhood.

Like many stories that are told through the eyes of a child (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane, for example), Boyhood is not a kid’s flick but a grown up story that is given additional poignancy by the innocence of its young protagonist. Mom (Arquette) is a complex character who is trying to create a good life for her children. During the first half of the vignettes she is working her way through college and graduate school. But she makes terrible choices regarding men. Divorced from her children’s father, she goes through a series of abusive relationships and doesn’t seem able to rise above whatever it is that attracts her to this kind of man. The children suffer from her mistakes even as they benefit from her courage to leave a bad relationship. It’s a fascinating character study, and Arquette plays it just right.

The Texas setting is just right, too. Linklater hails from Houston, and he takes his audience on a virtual tour of the state as the family moves from place to place. Some of the locations are absolutely gorgeous.

Boyhood is much more than a filmmakers’ gimmick. The story works, the casting works, and the concept works. The film is long, but it is engaging, believable, and well worth watching. Once again, Linklater has created a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater. IFC Productions, 2014, 165 minutes.



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The Joy of Work

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Chef is a film about the joy of cooking, but more than that; it is a film about building a business, doing something you love, working together as a family, and promoting one’s enterprise in the age of social media. It’s a small film with a surprisingly big cast that includes Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., along with a slew of other well-known actors with whom director Jon Favreau has worked on such bigger budget blockbusters as Iron Man.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. He loves food, he loves cooking, and he loves the crew he has assembled in his kitchen. He is a true artist with a knife and a stove. But his focus on his work has led to a rift within his family. He is divorced from his beautiful wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he doesn’t know what to do on “divorced-dad weekends” with his charming 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony); he’s always in a hurry to get to the farmer’s market and plan the menu for the restaurant, and Percy is just in the way.

When Carl and his kitchen crew learn that a top food blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to the restaurant Saturday night, Carl wants to create a variety of new dishes to showcase, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stay with the tried-and-true menu that his regular customers know and enjoy. The blogger writes a scathing review, and Carl responds with his first-ever tweet, which he doesn’t realize is public. Their cyber war goes viral, and soon Carl is out of a job.

The red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Sadly, such obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

All of this leads to a classic road trip movie. Carl starts a traveling food truck business and takes Percy and his best friend, sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) with him. Together they travel from Miami to Los Angeles, developing delicious sandwich menus based on local foods and ingredients they discover in regions along the way. This is what makes the movie sing. Father and son work in perfect sync as they develop flavor combinations, cook sandwiches side by side, and discover local specialties. Percy tweets pictures and details about their journey, and customers eagerly await their arrival in new cities. The film becomes a delightful tribute to the small family business and the wonders of social media. Do what you love, and do it with the people you love, and life will be good — even if you are living in a food truck.

Of course, no one could really do this. America might be the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it’s not the land of the free market. Carl wouldn’t really be able to do this on a whim in a matter of days. As Kasey Kirby and Laura Waters Hinson demonstrate in their fine documentary about the food truck business, Dog Days (this year’s Anthem Film Festival winner for Best Libertarian Ideals), the red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Never mind that Carl is providing a product that customers crave and willingly purchase; you can’t sell food without health inspections, business licenses, and location permits, and these all take time and money to secure — lots of it. Sadly, these obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

But red tape is not the point of this film, so Favreau wisely sidesteps the issue by giving a brief nod to the permit requirement and then asking us to suspend disbelief about the time it would take to acquire these permits in every city along the road. He focuses instead on the sheer joy of working together in a family business. Like many families today, the Caspers have been pulled so far in different directions that there’s an empty space where the home once was. As the story starts, Inez is a successful event planner who must be available for her clients beyond the standard 9–5 workday. Carl’s chef duties are mostly performed in the evenings. Percy’s “job” is school. Maids and gardeners take care of the work they might have done together at home. They are related by DNA and by a family name, but their productive lives are completely separate. The things that give each of them a sense of identity — the things they produce — are unconnected. Like many couples today, their root system dies as they branch out in different directions.

When the family business brings them together, the Caspers feel joy again. Yes, they work hard. Yes, it’s hot and humid in the truck. Yes, young Percy gets hurt sometimes — he burns his hand on the lid of the sandwich maker, and he cuts his finger with a paring knife. But he doesn’t let it stop him. He loves working with his dad. He loves providing food for customers who line up to taste their sandwiches. He loves mimicking his dad and knowing that his own work matters.

Carl says to Percy as they embark on their adventure, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s commencement address to the Mercy College graduates at Sing Sing this year. As she praised their accomplishments she said, “I tried to go to college but I had learning disabilities and I failed. My mother told me, ‘You might not be good at this, but you are good at something. You just need to find it.’ And I found it.” Chef celebrates the joy of finding what you’re good at; the joy that comes from doing work that is productive, creative, useful, and fulfilling; and the joy that comes from doing it with those you love.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chef," directed by Jon Favreau. Aldamisa Entertainment, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Apes Unlimited

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In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, a film emerged reflecting on the necessity for both. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won an honorary Oscar for Special Achievement in Makeup Design, which did not become an official category until 1981), the original Planet of the Apes is often dismissed as a campy sci-fi costume flick. Yet it addressed important issues about war, technology, and what it means to be human.

Most people know the plot: after being cryogenically frozen and suspended for centuries, three astronauts crashland on a planet that is remarkably compatible with human life; it has the right atmosphere, temperature, water, and food. The big difference is that on this planet the apes are civilized scientists while the humans are, like Jonathan Swift’s “yahoos” in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels, uncivilized brutes. No one who has seen the film can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene. The message was clear: this will be our future if we do not change our course.

POTA was followed by four sequels in rapid succession (1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, and a TV series in 1974). Now, nearly 50 years later, the message is just as timely: wars erupt as cultures clash around the globe. An African-American is in the White House, but government-promoted racism continues to flourish. Laboratory experiments change our food into something not-quite-natural, while genetically changed strains of viruses and biowarfare threaten our DNA. It’s not surprising that a new set of cautionary prequels should emerge that imagine a prelude to the 1968 POTA and offer a similarlycautionary message about war and civil rights. The newest film is not only just as timely, but even more sinister.

No one who has seen the original Planet of the Apes can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene.

As Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) ends, an experimental cure for Alzheimer’s disease has mutated into a deadly virus that has led to the near demise of the human race while causing the apes (on whom the drugs were experimented) to develop language and technological skills. (See my review in Liberty.) Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the franchise, despite being a bit slow in the first half.

As Dawn opens, apes now populate the woodland north of San Francisco, and they use weapons, ride horses, and plan strategies as they hunt deer (yes, these apes apparently have become carnivorous). The opening shot, looking up from the floor of the forest at dozens of apes swinging from treetop to treetop, is both eerie and beautiful. But the humans have not become extinct. A few were able to survive the “simian flu” and are now living in isolated camps in San Francisco (and possibly in other pockets around the world). Inevitably, the world of the apes and the world of the humans collide when the humans enter the forest to look for a way to repair a dam that could provide hydroelectric power to the city.

The film makes a strong case for the idea that reactions to actions, not the actions themselves, lead to war, and that appropriate reactions can avert it. Refreshingly, the film does not imply, as one might expect, that humans (especially white humans) are always bad, and animals (especially black animals) are always good. Instead, there are good and bad characters in both groups. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy human who shoots when scared. His foolish action could lead to either retaliation (war) or conciliation (patrolled borders) from the apes. Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bitter ape who fears humans and wants war. He seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s playbook about how to use deception to influence public opinion. Under Koba’s leadership, the apes lock up the humans and their own peaceful dissenters, and steal weapons from the human arsenal. In a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apes can be seen in the background painting a list of rules on the wall of their dwelling, a list that begins with “Apes do not kill apes” — after Koba usurps Caesar’s role as leader.

On the other hand, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to lead the apes and humans, respectively, toward a negotiated peace. Caesar calms his followers by reminding them, “If we go to war, we could lose all we’ve built — Home. Family. Future.” He then turns to a solution reminiscent of Robert Frost’s response to the Cold War (“good fences make good neighbors”) by delineating boundaries between the two groups. Cross this line, and we fight. Malcolm recommends similar restraint with the humans. I like this suggestion that we judge others by their actions, not by their pedigree. Of course, Koba prevails, and the second half of the film is a tense, action-packed battle between humans and apes as Caesar and Malcolm try to restore détente.

The original POTA introduced a then-groundbreaking prosthetic technique that allowed actors playing apes to move their cheeks and lips and show emotion on their faces. It was so innovative that designer John Chambers won the Oscar for his achievement. Now the apes are made to move and talk in a completely different way. That’s Andy Serkis, king of the motion-capture creatures (Smeagol-Gollum, King Kong, the previous Caesar) playing Caesar the Ape, but he isn’t wearing a hairy body suit or a prosthetic mask; he’s wearing a tight-fitting body suit with computerized balls attached to record his movements. Those are his expressive eyes we see on the screen, but his ape’s body is drawn through computer-generated “motion capture” techniques using the patterns created by the electrodes attached to his body. The ape is then drawn over the movements, complete with fur, scars, and expressions.

Man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth.

Consider that there might be dozens of apes or other CG animals in each scene, that each ape has to be drawn individually on each frame, that there are 24 frames per second in this 130-minute film, that for much of the film the apes are communicating in an intricate form of sign language, and that it all looks so real that you forget it’s animation, and you begin to appreciate what a work of art this film is.

Film uses a language of its own to create metaphors. In this one, a fiery backdrop during a battle scene reminds us visually that “war is hell.” Similarly, as the film ends a man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth. In this version, the apes use sign language when communicating with one another; I expect that in the next, the humans will have devolved to the yahoos that Taylor (Charlton Heston) found when he “crashlanded to earth” nearly 50 years ago. If that film is anything like this one, it will be well worth watching.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Matt Reeves. 20th Century Fox, 2014, 130 minutes.



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No Regrets

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Every year at about this time, Liberty’s Entertainment Editor, Jo Ann Skousen, produces a film festival in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the big gathering of libertarians and libertarian conservatives known as FreedomFest. Jo Ann is an expert at many things, but she can’t be a producer and a reporter at the same time, so I’ll poach on one of those territories and report on some things I witnessed in connection with this year’s Anthem, which happened on July 9–12.

One was Part 3, the final part, of the Atlas Shrugged movie, which will begin its public, theatrical run on September 12.

My impression was: not bad. Very good in many parts. None of the characters was cast in the way I would have done it; I would have made them look just like the people in the book. But good characters have more elasticity than that. In the tricky role of John Galt we have Kristoffer Polaha, who looks exactly like the dark, hunky, American boy you’d see in a truck commercial. Odd, but it’s possible and he makes it work. He even has a sense of humor. Laura Regan, as Dagny Taggart, is fine when she’s a bossy railroad executive; but when she’s a woman discovering Galt’s Gulch or being in love with John Galt, she’s commonplace, with the irritating whine that many commonplace women put in their voices these days.

These filmmakers don’t believe in just anything; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The screenplay is more than competent, although strong deductions must be made for the overuse of a voiceover telling you what’s been happening to the country while the main characters are having their conversations and love affairs. The device is obviously appropriate for a story of this length and complexity, but I thought I saw more visual effects in Part 1 than in this part, and there need to be more. I wish the budget had provided for them, although I’ve got to say that the torture of John Galt is much more effective in the movie than it is in the book.

What about the Speech? Story consultant David Kelley, who’s a smart guy, noted with some satisfaction that 33,000 words had been cut to 600. How? By “dropping from the speech what wasn’t foreshadowed in the movie.” In other words, by cutting what wasn’t directly relevant to the action. Fine with me.

A very interesting preview. But as interesting to me, for some of the same reasons, were the films on themes of liberty that were entered in the festival by small independent filmmakers. By “small,” I don’t mean “narrow” or “unimportant.” I mean done on small budgets. These filmmakers are important. They are volunteers in the first line of defense of small (i.e., also on small budgets) Americans like you and me.

Here’s Sean Malone, who’s come out with a film called No Vans Land, which is about how commuter vans are illegal in a lot of places. And Drew Tidwell, who has lots of distinguished movie and TV experience and who once made a movie inspired by Leonard E. Read’s famous I, Pencil (the movie’s called by the same name), which is about how everyone who uses even such a simple thing as a pencil should understand how much capitalism is involved in the multitude of processes necessary to make it. Now he’s the producer of a film called Empire State Divide, about people in southern New York who want to enrich the state by extracting natural gas from their land, but aren’t allowed to do so. And a charming couple, Dean and Nicole Greco, who made 100 Signatures, a film about the ways in which various states render it virtually impossible to run for office unless you’re nominated by one of the two major parties.

I asked the Grecos who did what on their film, and Dean replied, “We filmed it, wrote it, edited it, everything.” Fortunately, they finished it in October, because their daughter Andie (who made no comment but seemed happy to be with us) arrived in November. Nicole was once a TV newscaster, directed by Dean, but they decided to go out and make this film “to be helpful to mankind.”

That’s pretty much the story I got from the other moviemakers, too. But it was never the vague, general “I want to help” that becomes so difficult to hear when the community-servers and program-pushers use it. At Anthem the desire to help always had a local habitation and a name. “What keeps you going?” I asked Sean and Drew. Drew answered, “I believe in these projects,” and Sean answered, “I believe in the stories.” Each nodded at the other’s answer. They don’t believe in just anything, or in the vast generalizations that too many libertarians clutch to their bosoms; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs.

One person I spoke with — Kels Goodman, maker of a not so fictional film called The Last Eagle Scout, which is “about how government tries to shut down the Boy Scouts” — saw it as a warning about an imminent future, “a what if?, not 1000 years in the future but the next stage of the political correctness we have now.”

Of course, government has all the resources, and it’s a ratchet effect: the more money and power it takes, the more it has to maneuver us into letting it take more. The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs. And besides the money, there’s the rejection. It has insidious effects. As Nicole said, “it creeps up in weird ways.” You have to believe in a story a lot to keep coming back after being rejected by donors, film festivals, distributors, everyone but yourself. The people I talked to emphasized that. They didn’t like it. But they took it. And they responded by providing even more of their own energy and cleverness, and their money, if they still had any.

One person who had money was John Aglialoro, producer of Atlas Shrugged. When asked about the financing of the movie’s three parts, he said: “Part 1, $10 million, all by me. Part 2, $20 million, five by me. Part 3, $10 million, two-thirds by me.”

It’s a symbol of the libertarian movement. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. Might be fun, though. Nobody expressed any regrets.




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Point Counterpoint

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Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



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Ain’t That a Shame?

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“You’d be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much.” Is there a more perfect lyric in the world, one reviewer asks. The lyrics of the Four Seasons expressed all the yearning of unrequited love. I can still remember the party where my adolescent heart was stirred while that song played in my mind. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” I hummed softly, but his eyes adored someone else. Oh what a night — the music of our youth stays with us and has the power to evoke long-dormant memories and emotions.

That’s one reason that Jersey Boys (like Mamma Mia) has had such a long and successful run on Broadway, playing to people who often sing along (to the annoyance of the person in the next seat). The Four Seasons were the “other” ’60s sound — not rock and roll and not Motown but simple, true lyrics sung in clear, clean harmonies with that strong countertenor of Frankie Valli set in just the right key for female teenyboppers. I learned how to sing harmony with the Four Seasons. They were a sound you could play in front of your parents.

Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally.

Their personal lives were another story, however — normalized at the time but recently placed in another light by the Broadway musical and now the film. As represented by the movie, the boys from Jersey — Tommy, Nicky, Joe, and Frankie (Bob was from a nicer background) — were little more than hoodlums, knocking over delivery trucks and breaking into jewelry stores when they were supposed to be in the library. They knew the beat cops by name, and for some of them the local detention facility was like a revolving door, as the characters gleefully admit in the film. Of course, this is the way it’s remembered by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, executive producers of the film; Tommy, Nicky, and Joey might remember it quite differently.

“There were three ways out of the neighborhood,” Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the audience. “Join the army, join the mob, or become famous.” The first two could get you killed, so singing was the ticket out. Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally. Their photos are set in a double frame and stand like a shrine of hope on the living room shelf of Frankie’s childhood home.

The first half of the film focuses on the boys’ backgrounds and their slow rise to fame through seedy nightclubs and bowling alley bars. Waiting over an hour for the first familiar song to appear in this film heightens the drama at its unveiling. I was tapping my foot impatiently. But when it finally arrives it reminds us of how sublime their harmonies were, and how simple their lyrics: “She-e-e-rry, Sherry baby, She-e-erry, Sherry baby. She-eh-eh-eh-eh-erry baby. Sherry baby. Sherry, won’t you come out tonight?” Sheesh! How did that ever make it to the radio? Yet it topped the charts and was followed by hit after hit that told our stories in song.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage.

The lyrics of the songs tell the story in the film too, although it all works better in the stage musical, where the production numbers are showcased. Instead of using the lyrics to carry the story forward as most musicals do, Eastwood inserts them almost like a sidebar to the story he prefers to tell. In the film the songs often play in the background, and often while the characters are speaking, so the effect is lessened.

The huge theater where I saw the movie held exactly four viewers at the 7:15 show on opening night. Four Fans for the Four Seasons. Sigh. With the popularity of the Broadway musical (and Clint Eastwood as the producer and director) the film had a disappointing turnout for its opening day. But there’s the rub: Clint Eastwood. Who would have thought this talented octogenarian director known for his spare direction and raw drama would turn to the Broadway musical genre this late in his career? Oh wait — he already did, and it was a disaster. Eastwood starred as the singing prospector who shares a wife (Jean Seberg) with his partner (Lee Marvin, who has purchased her from a polygamous Mormon) in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), a movie based very loosely on the 1951 play that ran for only 289 performances. Eastwood was ridiculous in that film, and he brings no genuine experience to the filming of this musical. He also uses actors with no genuine experience on screen, intensifying the problem.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage. With only one familiar face — Christopher Walken as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, who acts as a kindly godfather to the Jersey boys — there is no name other than Eastwood’s to attract film audiences. The four who play the Seasons are actually pretty good, (Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, Erich Bergen as composer Bob Gaudio, and Tony-award-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli), but they aren’t, well, they aren’t seasoned. Renee Marino, who plays Frankie’s wife Mary onstage and in the film, is simply annoying with her exaggerated movements and wild outbursts of emotion. I actually went home and looked up her background, expecting to learn that she is Eastwood’s newest girlfriend, but she isn’t. (Remember those godawful movies from the ’70s and ’80s when Sondra Locke was his main squeeze? They were every which way but right.) The most interesting actor is Joseph Russo, also a newcomer, and only because he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci. He’s credited in the movie with bringing Bob Gaudio into the group, back when Pesci was just another kid from New Jersey. Eventually Tommy DeVito went to work with Pesci, and Pesci took Tommy’s name for his character in Goodfellas.

The problem is that acting for the screen is quite different from acting for a live audience. A movie screen is 70 feet wide, making the actor much larger than life. The flick of an eyebrow or twitch of a finger can relay emotion and communicate thoughts. Stage actors, on the other hand, must play to the balcony. Their actions are broad, even in tender moments. When Mary leans across a diner table with her butt in the air and her lips pouting forward as a come-on to the inexperienced Frankie, it works for the stage but is comical and unrealistic for the screen. And Eastwood should know, because he is the master of unspoken communication. In interviews Marino gushes about how relaxed and easy-going Eastwood was on set, but she needed direction. Desperately. “I need you, baby, to warm the lonely nights” can be said without words and bring tears to the eyes. Keep it simple, and keep it real. As Frankie says to Bob Gaudio about the arrangement of a new song, “If you goose it up too much it gets cheesy.”

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore

Overall Jersey Boys is a good film that provides interesting background about the music industry. Touring and recording isn’t all glitz and glamour; it’s mostly packing and repacking, eating in diners, staying in nondescript hotel rooms where you aren’t sure which direction is the bathroom in the middle of the night, missing family events, and in the end getting screwed over by unscrupulous money managers. It’s tough. But the film doesn’t give us much perspective about the Four Seasons and the time period in which they wrote. They were the clean-cut lounge singers who made hit after hit side by side with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. They held their own during the tumultuous ’60s, just singing about love: “Who loves you? Who loves you pretty baby?” They paved the way for a whole new sound in the ’70s when they added a brass orchestra.

Despite the hardships of the touring life, that wonderful music makes it all worthwhile. When asked to describe the best part of being the Four Seasons, Frankie responds simply, “When it was just us four guys singing under a street light.” Anyone who sings knows that feeling. It’s the joy of making music together.

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore at the end of the Broadway musical. Wisely Eastwood used the recordings of the original Four Seasons for the closing credits instead of the voices of the actors who play them in the movie. The difference is profound. Valli had such a glorious bell-like quality to his falsetto, while Young’s is simply false. He tries hard, but the effort shows. In the first hour of the film, when people react to his voice as he is “discovered,” it’s almost puzzling. What’s so great about this nasally voice with the slight rasp that makes you want to clear your throat? In the closing minutes of this film, listening to the original Four Seasons, it all makes sense.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 134 foot-tapping minutes.



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Action Plus Gravitas

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Tight shot on the face of a man sleeping. His eye snaps open, and it is yesterday morning — again. He rises, and the day unfolds exactly as it did the day before. No one else knows that the day is being repeated, but he remembers, and he reacts. Each time he learns the best way to react in order to get where he wants to be. With eternity to learn and an infinite number of do-overs until he gets it right, the man develops skills, enhances relationships, and eventually gets the girl.

Groundhog Day (1993) is one of my favorite movies, but that’s not the film I am reviewing here. Edge of Tomorrow relies on the same premise of a neverending loop in which a man wakes up day after day in the same place, facing the same dilemma, surrounded by the same people doing and saying the same things. But he changes and grows with each repeated day.

As the film opens, an alien force has invaded Europe, burrowed underground, and started spreading across the continent toward England, China, and Russia. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media specialist with the Army who started in ROTC and rose to the rank of Major through office successes; he has never trained for combat, and he has no intention of going to war. When commanded to go to the front lines of a beach invasion in Normandy, he bolts. When next we see him he is handcuffed, stripped of his rank, and forced to join J Squad on the day they are going to invade France. He has no training with weaponry, doesn’t even know how to disengage the safety, and buckles under the weight of his heavy armor.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight, since he usually plays the tough guy who is cool as a cucumber under pressure. Of course, before long he is using his repetition of days to build up his skills and learn how to fight so that he can save the world. It’s an impossible mission, but someone has to do it. Helping him is Lt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero known as the Angel of Verdun because she almost single-handedly vanquished the alien enemy in a previous battle. That’s because Rita has also experienced repetition of days and used her repeated experience to anticipate the enemy’s moves. Together she and Cage fight to reach the source of the alien force and destroy it.

The story line is reminiscent of a video game in which the player adopts a character on the screen and fights through several different levels to accomplish a goal. Each time the player “dies” he has to start over, and each time he plays, he gets a little further in the game by remembering where the booby traps are. Often players work together, telling each other which tunnel or path is safe and which one has a lurking danger. Cage and Rita work together in this way, remembering what happened the “previous day” and moving further each time toward their goal. When Cage says to Rita at one point, “We’ve never made it this far before,” it sounds exactly like my munchkins playing Mario together.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight.

This video-game reference does not trivialize the film; it simply gives the viewer something more to ponder about metaphysics, the nature of life, and what you might do if you could see into the future and learn from your mistakes. A do-over once in a while could make all the difference.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Director Doug Liman has remembered and learned from the past. While Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from the concept of Groundhog Day, it is not doomed in any way. Moreover, Liman brings to this project a strong history in action films from his work directing the Bourne series. Edge of Tomorrow is fresh, exciting, and compelling. The references to the storming of Normandy give it a sense of gravitas missing from most modern action films (it was even released on June 6, to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion). The threat of a lurking menace that spreads unseen and underground until it has become unstoppable and can enter one’s mind gives the audience a sense of personal investment while suggesting that the enemy is a thought or philosophy, not an army. Even the solution for stopping the enemy — that is, getting inside the enemy’s mind and understanding his perspective — is also a powerful lesson for modern warfare. Edge of Tomorrow works on every level.


Editor's Note: Review of "Edge of Tomorrow," directed by Doug Liman. Warner Brothers, 2014, 113 minutes.



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Memories of War

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Last month I visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum in Chiran, Japan, a small town characterized by cherry-lined streets and what remains of a centuries-old Samurai village. The museum is a moving tribute to the 1,000 or so young men who were ordered to give their lives for god and country (the emperor was considered divine) by flying their planes directly into American targets in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Chiran was the departure point for most of those flights.

The museum contains photographs of all the men, along with the letters many of them wrote to their families on the eve of their death. These pilots were little more than boys, most of them aged 17–28, some of them photographed playing with puppies as they posed, smiling, in front of their planes. In their letters they urged their mothers to be proud, their sisters to be comforted, their girlfriends to move on without them, and their children to be brave. One man wrote, “I am sorry that Papa will not be able to play horsey with you any more.” Another’s girlfriend leapt from a bridge to her death after she read his letter, and yet another’s wife drowned herself and her children before his flight so he could die without regret. Several of these young pilots were Koreans conscripted into the service against their will. None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death. I felt nothing but sadness for these young boys.

Two weeks later I was in Oahu, where over 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning of December 7, 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, wounding another thousand, and crippling the American fleet. The attack brought America into war in the Pacific. One cannot visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial without feeling profound sadness for the loss of life that day and in the four years that were to come. Yet, having just visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum, I could not hate the men who flew the bombers into Pearl Harbor. The words of Edwin Starr resonated in my mind: “War: What Is It Good For?”

Perhaps it is good for peace. But at what price? I thought of this as I watched The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of a British soldier, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine) who was captured by the Japanese during World War II, forced to help build the railway through Thailand that was immortalized by the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and tortured by his captors when he built a radio receiver inside their prison. The title of the film has dual meanings; not only does Lomax help build the railroad through Thailand, but from his youth he has had an obsession for trains and has always memorized details about train schedules, train depots, and the towns that surround train stations. In context, the title also suggests a metaphor for the bridges that are eventually built, through arduous effort, between Lomax and others, including his wife Patti.

None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death.

As the film opens, Lomax (Firth) is a middle-aged man who meets a pretty nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on a train. He immediately falls in love with her. (The film implies that this is a first marriage for the shy and socially inept Lomax, but the real Eric Lomax was already married at the time he met Patti. He married Agnes just three weeks after returning from the war, and then divorced her just a few months after meeting Patti on the train. This, and the rest of the story, suggests to me that he returned from the war safe, but not sound.) Eric notes morosely, “Wherever there are men, there’s been war,” and Patti replies with a gentle smile, “And wherever there’s been a war, there’s been a nurse like me to put them back together.”

This introduces the key to their relationship. The war has officially ended 35 years earlier, but it still rages in Lomax’s mind. He will need the kind and patient wisdom of a nurse to help put him back together again. His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully portrayed when ordinary events trigger painful memories that transport him immediately to his jungle experiences as a POW. For example, the sound of the shower triggers terrifying memories of the water torture he endured at the hands of his brutal captors. The unexpected intrusion of these scenes demonstrates the unending aftermath of war and the difficulty of controlling its horrifying memories.

Wise casting adds to the pathos of this fine film. Much of what I know about World War II has been shaped by the films I’ve seen, and most of those were populated by actors well into their 30s and 40s. But in this film Young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by slender boys in their early 20s who can’t even grow a stubble of beard after four days aboard a prison train. They are closer to the tender ages of the soldiers they are portraying, and this increases the pathos of the story and our admiration for the strength and resolve of these boys who are thrust into manhood, much like the kamikaze pilots, before they even know what war is.

The Railway Man is a character-driven film that demonstrates the choices we have, even when it seems we have no choices at all. Jesus demonstrated the power of choice when he said, “If a man requires of you his coat, give him your cloak also” and, “If a man smites you, turn the other cheek.” He wasn’t telling his followers to give up and give in, but to take charge and move on, by invoking the right to choose one’s attitude when it seems that the freedom to choose one’s actions is gone. This film demonstrates that same transformative power of choice.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Railway Man," directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Weinstein Company, 2014, 116 minutes.



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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun

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The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.




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