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10 Movies for vicarious travel

December 4th, 2014

My blogging angle has clearly become almost exclusively travel-oriented, and any self-respecting travel blogger has to have a list of his favorite travel movies. So here is my attempt to establish bona fides.

I set out with the goal of picking not just the movies filmed in gorgeous locations but those that allowed me to identify with the experiences of main characters. This whole idea of vicarious travel, you know… That did not work out in its entirety and I ended up with a list that well approximates the prevailing blogosphere wisdom.

1. A Good Year (2006)

A hot-shot playboy investment banker inherits a vineyard in the south of France and gradually discovers a different side of life – and love. Few people can truly identify with such fortune but I suspect many dream of it. Gorgeous Provençal landscapes provide the perfect setting for acting that is as simple as it is sparkling. A few quintessential London vignettes offer delightful contrast to the serenity of French countryside. And the movie offers the best ever put-down for the kind of obnoxious American tourists who think that every restaurant has to have their specific preferred meal on the menu: “MacDonalds is in Avignon, fish and chips in Marseille. Allez!”
 

 

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Movies, Travel

Drive-by movie review: Moneyball

April 17th, 2012

Going through recent Oscar contenders, I find another movie that I like well enough but do not hold worthy of an Oscar consideration. It gave me a glimpse into inner workings of a baseball franchise, which I always find fascinating (although I have little doubt that the eponymous book on which the movie is based goes much farther in that respect), but spent way too much time focused on solitary emotions portrayed by Brad Pitt.

I have a feeling that only a baseball fan can have an immersive experience with this film. Natasha watched with me mainly because of Brad and I had to pause the disk on a couple of occasions to translate baseball lingo for her. “National pastime” or not, I know a fair number of naturally-born Americans who are indifferent to sports and to baseball in particular, and I am not sure that Pitt’s customary excellent display in a dominant leading role would compensate for the specificity of the setting and the plot in terms of overall appreciation.

If anyone found otherwise, please let me know.

Movies

Hooked on Beatles

March 19th, 2012
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Last weekend we went for a movie screening of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, shown as part of New York International Children’s Film Festival. Lifelong Beatles fan that I am, I have never actually seen the movie in its entirety before, so it was a treat (followed up by a nice dinner with friends at an Upper East Side eatery).

I actually do not think Yellow Submarine is a kids movie – there aren’t that many general-audience jokes or visuals in it, the songs from the eponymous album that all get an airing during the film are all centered around adult concepts (All Together Now is a notable exception; even All You Need Is Love can hardly leave a proper impression on a small kid beyond the title line refrain, IMHO), and some flashing imagery may be disturbing even for adults.

Nonetheless, my 11-year-old daughter after watching the movie is suddenly completely hooked on the Beatles. She had me put my entire digitized collection of the Fab Four songs onto her iPod and, according to her, is currently listening to nothing else.

I find her mostly unprompted affection for the band quite amazing. Considering that they disbanded more than 40 years ago – the music was way too different then.

On the other hand, therein probably lies the perfect explanation. The music kids listen to today can hardly stand any comparison to The Beatles.

A reason for me to smile.

Movies, Music

Drive-by movie review: Hugo

March 15th, 2012
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It is brilliantly made. It deserves all of those non-acting Oscars that it received and probably a couple more (I loved the score and the overall editing was superb, but those two awards went elsewhere). And it directly speaks to our love of cinematography as a magical art form – the sentiment I share with uncounted movie fans.

Against that background, the few nitpicks I have about the visually arresting story of a gifted orphan in search of his purpose in life appear minor. Mostly, they have to do with plot devices that I find superficial. For instance, Hugo is looking for a message from his deceased father, and his only remaining link to him is the old notebook; that notebook may have been burned by Monsieur Meiles or not, but as soon as searching for it leads the boy to the old drawings related to the cinema, it is completely forgotten, as is the father, really.

I was also left a bit fuzzy on the timelines. The events are seemingly placed somewhere between the two world wars, with the fallout from WWI having a significant impact on Georges Meiles. Even if we push the story to the late 1930’s, it has been no more than twenty years since the end of that war until Hugo meets Meiles. And yet, both the depiction of Monsieur Meiles as at least a septuagenarian and several references to “long-long time ago” suggest that more time should have passed.

But those are truly only nitpicks that speak primarily to how I process what I see in movies rather than to how good or bad the movie is. These few loose ends are nicely counterbalanced by the mind-blowing imagery and the incandescent vignettes with just a handful of secondary characters that richly bring the train station to life. There are few lines that these characters speak – in fact, dialogues are definitely secondary to visual imagery throughout the movie – but that only serves as a perfect illustration of how movies allow us to see things that we would otherwise have not seen.

And the flashbacks of the early silent movies production process – reenacted with enough passion and mischief to be both funny and fascinating – are pure gold for a history-minded spectator.

Highly recommended for dreamers of all ages.

Movies

Drive-by movie review: Midnight in Paris

February 28th, 2012
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This year, my movie viewing habits prevented me from seeing any of the Oscar-nominated films ahead of the awards ceremony. Even those of the nominees that were already out on DVD did not find its way to the top of my Netflix queue until now. So the very first nominated movie arrived in my mailbox on the Monday following the Academy Awards.

I do not believe Midnight in Paris rises to the level of an Oscar winner, so no qualms here that it did not win anything beyond the original screenplay. But I liked it a lot nonetheless.

Then again, I am an admitted francophile. More importantly, a Paris-o-phile. The movie starts with solid three minutes of nothing but the lovely sights of the city with background music. Nothing else, not even the starring credits. I was instantly hooked.

The movie continued to use instantly recognizable – for us, at the very least – Parisian scenery throughout its duration, and I can easily identify with Owen Wilson’s character’s desire to live there. It was also full of excellent interaction between the characters of just the kind that I enjoy in Woody Allen’s movies. But the plot left a number of questions regarding the fantasy at its center open, and it took a couple of turns that I found inexplicable. It also got a little bit drunk on its own concept and introduced too many passing – but famous – characters that added little to the proceedings, IMHO. From that point of view, I will possibly challenge even the screenplay Oscar once I get to see other contestants.

In short, it is a charming ode to Paris, so highly recommended for those partial to evocative urban scenery. Aficionados of dialogue-driven dramedies will like the movie as well.

Movies

A movie, a play, a time stuck in traffic

December 29th, 2011

This stay-at-home vacation thing is unexpectedly working out in a way that my top-priority sizable project for the week (in the “home video” category) remains untouched on the to-do list. And there is only one formal vacation day left…

I suppose going for a matinee movie showing one day followed by a mid-day theater outing followed by long-distance chauffeur duties were bound to kill enough time over the course of a few days to make it feel that I am actively occupied on what I thought would be a very lazy week.

The movie I watched with Becky was the latest Sherlock Holmes, which was both entertaining and somewhat disappointing. I am not a Holmes purist to any degree, I was familiar with the first movie and calibrated my expectations accordingly, and I appreciate the high entertainment quotient and directorial skill found in the latest installment. And I actually think the second movie went to greater length to showcase Holmes’ deductive reasoning than the first one. But in the end, it felt as if it was mostly about guns, explosions, well-placed acts of sabotage, hand-combat skills and a fortuitously positioned cannon than about, you know, brains. Downey Jr and Law do play off each other fantastically, though.

The next day it was musical theater’s turn. A friend recommended a play running at the NYU’s Skirball Center and we went for a city outing alongside several families. Started with a nice lunch at Café Español, then moved on to Washington Square so that the younger kids could have some fun on the playground, and finished the day’s itinerary with a play.

Called Shlemiel the First, it is Jewish-themed and theoretically was supposed to appeal to our crew of folk music lovers. But I ended up thoroughly outnumbered when attempting to craft a positive review afterwards. The prevailing opinion ranged from Kimmy’s diplomatic “I did not like it that much” to the blunt “It sucked” voiced by several people in the party. It is not that the music was too Broadway-ized to be readily identifiable as Jewish. It is not that the plot was silly and its resolution was dumb. It is not that the lyrics were mediocre and the jokes were mostly unfunny. It is not that the actors were, charitably, unremarkable as singers. It is, frankly, all of that combined together that created an overall impression of something that should have been, in hindsight, avoided.

Least of all I understood why we brought children along (kids, actually, comprised a large portion of the audience). There were a couple of mildly risqué scenes, but not a single children-level joke. Given the buffoonery overtones of the proceedings, the play could not be called educational in any respect either.

My attempts at finding positives about the show stopped at appreciating the choreographed open-scene transformations that were well worked into the flow of the performance. Becky agreed that it looked really neat, but refused to give the show any other props.

Driving into Greenwich Village in the late morning went along considerably smoother than driving into Midtown Manhattan in the early afternoon. Today I had to pick up Becky’s friend from the Penn Station as she arrived for a few days’ stay with us, and my composure was sorely tried. Too many cars, too many pedestrians, too many “you can’t turn here, go straight” prohibitions. On the bright side, I did spend considerably more time than expected on the round-trip, further reducing my idle existence on this boringest of vacations.

Chronicles, Movies, Theater

Oscar coincidence

February 28th, 2011

For the second year in a row, I manage to see one single Oscar contender for the Best Picture award ahead of the annual ceremony. The movie wins the corresponding Golden Globe award and is generally regarded as a front-runner for the Academy award, but ends up losing both the Director and the Best Picture to another contender.

I admit, the sample so far is statistically insignificant, but I might be developing an Oscar “death kiss” with my movie-viewing habits.

To be fair, I did not think The Social Network was an Oscar-caliber movie. It was entertaining, it was interesting because its subject was a matter of everyday use, but it did not struck me as Oscar-worthy. I can get behind its award for Best Editing – as an occasional dabbler in home movies, I did like the flow of its cuts. I probably would not begrudge Jesse Eisenberg an Oscar should he had won as the Best Actor – I thought he was brilliant as the smarter-than-anyone geek whose private insecurities drive him to try hard to be an asshole. But beyond that, the movie status of being about a current cultural phenomenon unduly elevated it, IMHO, to heights that it did not completely deserve.

Then again, I have minimal clues as to the competition. Something that will be corrected over the course of the year.

And somewhere along the way, I will surely see one of next year’s Oscar contenders, derailing its chances.

Movies

Mid-year movie roundup

July 12th, 2010
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With my continuing meager creative output, I figured I could for once fall back on an almost-forgotten recurring feature. After all, we did decide a couple of months ago to trade in cable movie channels – which, in the States, seem to never have the movies I want to watch on the channels that I happen to have – for a Netflix subscription (especially, seeing how Netflix now streams to Wii – although the selection of movies available for streaming leaves a lot… let me repeat that – a lot!… to be desired).

It would appear that I should have watched more than 17 movies since the beginning of the year, but that’s the whole tally. Usual drive-by impressions are below the fold.

Airport 1970
Alice in Wonderland 2010
Amélie 2001
Body of Lies 2008
Book of Eli 2010
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 2008
Inglorious Basterds 2009
Iron Man 2008
Nowhere Boy 2009
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief 2010
Public Enemies 2009
State of Play 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 2008
The Dark Knight 2008
The Hurt Locker 2009
The Lovely Bones 2010
The Men Who Stare at Goats 2009

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Movies

Movie [drive-by] review: Alice in Wonderland

March 9th, 2010
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The children and I went to see Alice in Wonderland on Sunday. We are all big aficionados of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, and anything coming out in 3D these days has a strong attraction for us anyway.

We weren’t disappointed. The 3D experience is quite rewarding, special effects and amalgamation of live action and CGI continues to amaze, Johnny Depp is brilliant, other members of the cast were all quite good, Tim Burton’s take on the familiar story is appropriately dark and hilarious by turns. Kimmy, who is normally easily scared by on-screen monsters and startling action cuts, did not find the proceedings too scary.

My only problem was with Mad Hatter falling into Scottish accent during his rants. It must have been too long since I left UK – I had a bit of trouble deciphering his speech. Becky, on the other hand, had no such problem.

A solid on my scale.

Movies

Oscars

March 8th, 2010

NBC pissed me off with their atrocious Olympics coverage. ABC then decided to get on my bad side by making me miss Oscars.

Almost.

I was almost expecting the looping “important message from Cablevision” that blamed all ills on ABC throughout the day on Sunday to be replaced by live Oscar feed just in time for the ceremony. That the feed was restored about an hour into the broadcast partially mitigated my displeasure with both ABC and Cablevision (which, I’ve no doubt, was shared by the 3 million Cablevision subscribers residing in WABC-7 broadcast area), but it still does not excuse either company. The Dolan family, cheapskates extraodinaire, seem to have positioned me and other subscribers as potential hostages in any dispute with content providers (which, judging by the fact that this is the second time this year that a popular channel was taken off the air, may become a regular happenstance). In this particular case, the little I understand about TV content economics does suggest that ABC is more at fault; I can’t imagine why a local affiliate in one specific region of the country, who produces very little of original content beyond local news broadcasts, would be suddenly worth 20% more than before, especially since it is, in effect, a free channel. (And I do know several friends who bought themselves digital antennas to ensure that they could watch Oscars even if the dispute was not resolved in time.)

The outcome will undoubtedly be higher rates for my cable subscription. The Dolans will quote-unquote apologize and blame it on the greedy networks, but that hardly makes me any happier.

As it were, we missed only the opening part of the ceremony, which might have been one of its more entertaining parts. We seemingly did not miss any of the actual awards, joining in when the Best Supporting Actor – which, I believe, is traditionally one of the very first categories to be awarded – was up.

There were surprisingly few entertaining bits in the rest of the broadcast. Only one production number, with brilliant street dancing to the nominated Best Original Scores. No live performances of the nominated Best Songs, which must be the newest trend. Several presenter routines were clever (Ben Stiller, or Diaz and Carell), while quite a few people looked uncomfortable and camera-shy. I liked the recently adopted practice of giving each of the Best Actor/Actress nominees a personal panegyric by a co-star; some of those salutations were quite charming. The Martin/Baldwin duo, conversely, was not at all funny and looked out of place – I can barely recall a joke of theirs that I laughed at (ok, the Paranormal Activity spoof wasn’t half bad); overall, IMHO, they were a huge downgrade from Hugh Jackman’s performance last year.

A number of acceptance speeches for “lesser” awards was quite rudely cut off, which may have helped to move things forward (nonetheless, the broadcast lasted a bit over 4 hours), but also probably contributed to there being very few good ones – I think Sandra Bullock’s was the only one that managed to be both funny and heart-felt without sounding arrogant or patronizing; I can only recall a couple of others (the French guy who won the Best Animated Short, the winner for the Best Score) who stayed away from the tired formula of “I couldn’t imagine this X years ago – Look at me now! – Thank you the managers and the agents and the members of the crew [and James Cameron the Visionary]”.

The Hurt Locker looks like a great movie that I definitely want to see, but its haul of Oscars and especially its Best Picture award look to me a bit of a stretch. Ever since Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan in ’98, the Academy has been trying to over-compensate in favor of the socially- or politically-profound movies, and this must have been the case of the voters being biased towards a current-events, touches-the-nerve story over a fantastic allegory. Still, I felt that a ground-breaking movie a decade in the making, and one that so effortlessly became the most widely seen movie in the entire history, was slam-dunk deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. Makes it even more of an anomaly that The Return of the King cleaned up in ’03.

Also, the Best Picture award provided a single exception that I noticed this year to the trend of the same people winning all awards during the season. Jeff Bridges won a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Oscar for his role. Sandra Bullock did likewise. So did Christoph Waltz. So did Mo’Nique. I can’t imagine that their performances are such stand-outs compared to those of their fellow nominees that different voting bodies would each agree. Only when it came to the best movie, did the Academy of Motion Pictures vote differently from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Weird.

In any case, Oscars always rekindle my interest in watching movies. That, and the sight of gorgeous women in beautiful gowns – hey, I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I enjoy that sight tremendously! – makes the Oscar night one of the most important TV nights in my viewing calendar. Good thing ABC and Cablevision came to their senses before it was too late.

Movies

2009 movie round-up

December 30th, 2009

With my very limited movie-watching programme of the second half of the year, I was surprised to learn that I managed to see more films for the first time this year than I did last year (50 vs 47). Below the fold is my by now traditional year-end round-up.
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Movies

Movie review: Avatar

December 23rd, 2009

I freely admit that I’m not a cinema-going type. My misanthropic tendencies are acutely tested in the presence of inconsiderable louts with their cell phones, eating habits and inability to refrain from talking to one another during the showing. As a result, I rarely go to the movies, unless it is for some kid-oriented viewing with my children, or a personal can’t-wait-must-see-now target such as a new 007 movie.

Occasionally, though, a new release rises to a level of an event, and I make specific effort to go see it.
 

 
In my eyes, Avatar was clearly such an event. Everything I saw and heard in the weeks before it came out, suggested that this movie will open a whole new chapter in the history of cinema.

I was not disappointed.

Below the cut I try to explain what I liked about this movie and why it deserves in my book. If you are not afraid of a vague spoiler or two and interested in my musings, feel free to read on. Otherwise, just go and see the movie. In 3D, preferably.
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Movies

Not watching movies (but two drive-by reviews included)

October 29th, 2009

Four months since my last movie overview – and only a couple of movies watched in that period of time. Before I get into an explanation of why my movie-viewing habits have become so insignificant, let me tell you what those two viewings were, and anyone who couldn’t care less would be then free to skip this post altogether. (As always, there’ll be spoilers, too.)

Hancock 2008
No Country for Old Men 2007

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Movies

15 Movies Meme

September 9th, 2009

In the absence of truly original content, I sought to fall back on a gimmick today, that being the trebly-symmetric date of 09/09/09. Except, to keep the symmetry intact, I would have to talk about something related to the Olympic Games, as I did both on 07/07/07 and on 08/08/08. Alas, Olympics are lately as much as on my mind as, say, Newton’s binomial theorem. Not a lot, in case you did not get the allegory. Not at all, in fact.

What is on my mind are what we hope the last remaining bits for fully re-integrating ourselves back into American life. Closing on a house and such. Not the topics I am willing to blog extensively about.

Instead, realizing that I’ve been increasingly neglecting my blogging host responsibilities of late, I decided to resort to the true and tried crutch of a meme and followed a recent one via Jason. If interested, look below the cut.
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Movies

Late June movie round-up

June 27th, 2009

In less than three weeks since my last movie-watching summary I managed to see 11 movies, some of them fairly recent releases. Half of them were watched on transatlantic flights, plus I worked through the DVR queue a bit, in anticipation of fast-approaching cancellation of my satellite TV service.

Here is the lineup, with drive-by reviews as always below the cut (few spoilers cannot be avoided).

10,000 B.C. 2008
21 2008
Fool’s Gold 2008
Gran Torino 2008
sex, lies, and videotape 1989
Taken 2009
The Incredible Hulk 2008
The International 2009
Valkyrie 2008
Watchmen 2009
We Own the Night 2007

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Movies

Early June movie round-up

June 7th, 2009

This is a bit of an inertia post. I do not feel ready to completely abandon my drive-by movie reviews, but none of the movies I caught in the last month or so were truly on my to-watch list (not even Star Trek, an impulse decision, or Coraline, watched at the behest of the kids, both of which I enjoyed). I’m overdue for an installment of the feature, so even though I have few illuminating thoughts on these, here they are.

Coraline 2009
Ghostbusters 1984
I Am Legend 2007
Star Trek 2009
Wanted 2008

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Movies

Coraline in 3D

June 6th, 2009
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The girls and I went to see Coraline today, which was my first experience with “real 3D” movies. Not the old spectrum-shift type that looked very confusing when not seen through special glasses; and the glasses themselves were not of the flimsy cardboard variety with one red eye and one blue eye. Instead, we were issued very sturdy old-fashioned-looking glasses with clear, almost imperceptibly tinted lenses; putting these glasses on outside of the cinema did not produce any discernible changes to the clarity of vision. When we tried looking at the screen without them, the display was obviously flat and a teeny tiny bit blurry but nonetheless watchable. With the glasses on, we were treated to excellent 3D effect and a very enjoyable experience.

Way cool!

The movie is quirky and beautifully made, and there are enough ominous moments to make the young members of the audience uncomfortable (Kimmy confessed to being a bit scared in certain episodes). Neil Gaiman’s stories are always very imaginative, often with strong dark undertones. The cinematographers did an outstanding job of visualizing his novella. There are very few all too brief hilarious moments, the colors are all muted, you constantly feel that something sinister is afoot…

I did not think it was a children’s movie at all, but the girls liked it overall. I did as well. What spoiled it a bit for me was my usual pet peeve of having a Russian character speak in broken Russian. Mr Bobinsky at times spoke brilliantly in Russian (and Ian McShane did a reasonable job of faking Russian accent when Bobinsky spoke English), but there were enough of goofs – putting a given name where a patronymic should have sounded, repeatedly using a diminutive for flies when mice were the subject (мушки vs мышки), mis-stressing a syllable of a long word – to kick me out of my reverie so that I could contemplate this perpetually burning question: How expensive could it be to hire a native Russian speaker to proof-read the few Russian lines in a movie script?

I wonder if there is an alternative career in that…

Anyway, that’s two trips to the cinema in less than a month. Go me!

Movies

Movie review: Star Trek

May 17th, 2009

If this blog is any kind of a guidance, yesterday was only the third time in a year that I actually went to a cinema to watch a movie. I might as well give my brief expressions of that here. Since most people who are interested in Star Trek undoubtedly have read – or written themselves – tons of illuminating analysis of the movie elsewhere, and those not interested should have a fair chance of ignoring it altogether, I’m hiding the body of the post below the fold. (There will be a few spoilers, too, in case you have not seen the movie.)
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Movies

April movie round-up

May 2nd, 2009

The three films that I watched for the first time during the month of April are all, to a degree, “acclaimed”, if not critically, then at least among some of my friends. That last consideration drove my selection a bit, on the few occasions where I did find time to watch a movie.

Fargo 1996
Juno 2007
The 13th Warrior 1999

As always, my thoughts on each movie are below the cut, proceed at your own risk.
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Movies

March movie roundup

March 24th, 2009

You would think that after a short hiatus I’d come back with plenty of stuff to talk about. You would be wrong. I am not touching any of the current events or political topics (not that I have ever been prolific in that area), there is nothing exciting going on at home (only a couple of weeks left before the next excellent travel adventure, though), and I can’t think of a fascinating expat topic to expound upon.

I’m left pretty much with an assortment of my serialized “features”. So, I suppose, I’ll fall back on one, bringing it forward from its usual slot, because (a) there is little chance that I’ll see more movies until the end of the month, and (b) I actually want to talk about movies for a change.

[I heard your collective groan from here. You don’t have to be so obvious. Feel free to not look below the cut – I won’t hold a grudge.]

In the first half of the month, I watched a few of recent award contenders, interspersed with a couple of “guilty pleasures”.
 

Across The Universe 2007
Hitman 2007
In Bruges 2008
Slumdog Millionaire 2008
Vicky Cristina Barcelona 2008

There be spoilers – I’ll keep them to a minimum, but please be warned.
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Movies