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June 29, 2015

Hard to be a God

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Trudno byt' bogom
Aleksei German - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Throughout Hard to be a God, I felt like I was caught in the midst of a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder. The density of people and details sometimes was overwhelming. Yes, the era depicted in German's film is a few centuries earlier that the scenes in Breugel's work, but there is, for me, an undeniable similarity with the cramming of people and animals within a limited space. The faces, especially, are remarkably like those found in Breugel's paintings.

Only rarely do you come across a face that might be remotely photogenic. There's snot and grime on most of those faces. Some of the teeth, if someone has close to a full set, look like the sharp set from the mouth of an animal. The film takes place on a planet that is similar to our own, but the civilization, such as it is, resembles that of a small European village in the Middle Ages. With almost constant rain, the streets are essentially muddy trails. It's impossible to not be streaked with mud and shit. Dirt and disease seem to be everywhere.

A group of scientists visit the planet primarily to observe life, but end up being involved in the political conflicts that prevent the possibility of a "renaissance". The science fiction aspects are set aside quickly, so that what is seen is a story of intrigue captured by a periodically acknowledged omniscient camera. The camera follows the action, sometimes seeming to be lost in crowd, sometimes having the field of vision partially obscured by some bit of bric-a-brac, hanging nearby. The only indication that one of the men is from a more contemporary time is when he plays a jazzy tune on a clarinet type instrument. And the basic premise goes against the more familiar stories of scientists, or the humble "Connecticut Yankee" sharing their magic with those relying on more primitive technology.

Aleksei German spent about six years simply in the filming. And there are far more details than can be absorbed in a single viewing. Another five years was spent on the editing, which was completed under the supervision of German's son and wife, screenplay collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. Some of the delays were due to German's own ill health. The legendary fastidiousness of German makes Stanley Kubrick look slap-dash in comparison.

There is an accompanying documentary, partially about the making of Hard to be a God, but also a look back at German's career. The glimpses of his previous work makes me hope that German's previous five films become more readily available. A booklet that includes a statement by German, and essays by his son, Aleksei German, Jr. and Aliza Ma, of the Museum of the Moving Image, help provide greater context for both the film and the filmmaking.

Posted by peter at 08:21 AM

June 28, 2015

Coffee Break

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Rock Hudson in The Spiral Road (Robert Mulligan - 1962)

Posted by peter at 06:55 AM

June 25, 2015

Der TodesKing

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Jörg Buttgereit - 1990
Cult Epics BD Region A

There's a scene in Der TodesKing where a young woman is reading aloud from a book, more or less, to a little girl sitting next to her. I wish I knew the source of the passage read because it seems even more appropriate, and timely, at this moment. I'm roughly paraphrasing here but the essence is that there are people who, considering their lives meaningless, hope to give their lives meaning by suicide, or suicidal acts that will bring some attention, and therefore meaning, to their lives. The title translates as "The Death King", an entity that makes people want to kill themselves. The film is composed of seven vignettes, one for each day of the week, bridged by footage of a decomposing body.

There is a history of artists who have depicted death. And as exploitive as Der TodesKing may seem in writing about certain scenes, there is a serious intent behind some of the moments that are clearly designed to be shocking. These moments may briefly bring to mind Takashi Miike and John Waters, but Buttgereit, more than any filmmaker I can think of, appears to be obsessed with death of the unnatural kind, whether by choice or circumstance.

There is one scene that manages to be both appalling and hilarious at the same time, where you might find yourself laughing while covering, even partially, your eyes. A young goes to a video store, one that has a big poster for Nekromantik. We are able to scan some of the titles available, including Citizen Kane, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Ms. 45. The young man takes home a film similar to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., about a female Nazi officer named Vera. In the film-within-the film, Vera supervises the, um, shall we say, extreme circumcision using a hedge clipper. We see the surgery in close-up, in its sepia glory. The young man watching the movie is interrupted by his girl friend, home with groceries. He shoots her in the head. Punching out the photo of the girl's mother, he takes the frame and places it over the part of the wall splattered with blood and bits of brain. It's gross and funny, and seems to encapsulate whatever Buttgereit might want to say about art and violence.

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Buttgereit also has his restrained side, as in a scene composed of shots taken on a bridge known for the high number of people who have leapt to their death. The names of several people, their ages and occupations, are superimposed a montage, a study of of the bridge from its highest points. There is also one visually dazzling moment that should be credited to producer-cinematographer Manfred Jelinski, with the camera making a series of 360 degree pans around the apartment of Hermann Kopp, with Kopp in various stages of preparation for his suicide, and in a different part of the small studio each time the camera catches him. Also, Buttgereit replies to Jean-Luc Godard's famous adage by presenting a girl and a gun, actually two guns, and a camera harnessed to her, allowing her to shoot bullets and film simultaneously.

Also included here is a commentary track by Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkichen, a documentary on the making of Der TodesKing which shows how the disintegrating corpse was created, a documentary, Corpse Fucking Art - about the Nekromantik films. Additionally, the superb soundtrack, not unlike the music played by the Kronos Quartet at their peak, is an extra bonus.

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Posted by peter at 09:36 AM

June 23, 2015

Cross

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Dai6 Leok6 Gaai3
Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

If there was a film that really needed a "Making of" supplement, this could well be an extreme example. Begun in 2010 by writer-director Daniel Chan, the film was completed the following year by Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin. I have not found any information as to what happened during the production. As Chan is still alive and has completed three films since that time, I might guess that there was a possible difference of opinion with the producer of Cross, that has both shortened the running time with a significant amount of footage being replayed as part of of several flashbacks, and has provided the story with a resolution that leaves a few plot holes.

The basic premise may be troubling for some. Simon Yam is a devout Catholic, whose wife commits suicide rather than endure the pain of dying from leukemia. At the wife's funeral, the priest presiding over the burial unsubtly reminds Yam that suicide is considered a sin, and it's up to the discretion of God as to whether the wife will be allowed into heaven. Racked with guilt about how the wife died, Yam finds a website, an online forum of people contemplating suicide. Some of these people seem to be in hopeless situations. Rather than letting these people sin against the church as his wife did, Yam turns into a serial killer, murdering these people to keep them from killing themselves. It seems like an extreme case of euthanasia, rationalized by Yam. Due to one of the killings being a bit messy, Yam turns himself in to the police.

Where the narrative gets even messier than the murders is when there is the suggestion that Yam was manipulated in killing his victims. There is one plot line that is left dangling. The other plot line that appears to provide an explanation still has lapses in logic. It's as if the producer decided to cut his losses by presenting something that almost runs the length of a feature, what with the re-used scenes and about five minutes of closing credits, and hoped that no one noticed that none of the filmmakers who followed Chan were really paying attention to what had transpired in the first forty-five minutes.

Chan's screenplay was a prize winner at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in 2010, so I have to wonder what was originally intended here. The only interview excerpt I could find from Chan has him discussing his love for Hong Kong gangster films. Whether intended or not, there is some connection here to that very Catholic filmmaker, Alfred Hitchock, though not with his priest in peril, I Confess, but with Stage Fright, and its reminder to the audience to not not believe what they see.

Posted by peter at 08:19 PM

June 21, 2015

Coffee Break

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Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan - 1968)

Posted by peter at 05:40 PM

June 18, 2015

Sugar Hill

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Paul Maslansky - 1974
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Should I feel guilty about enjoying Sugar Hill? Maybe. It seems like no one involved could remember that the title is a play on the Harlem neighborhood of the same name. I did enjoy seeing several "blaxploitation" movies back when they were new. The one development that did bother me was that as Hollywood realized that there was a niche audience hungry to see black faces on the big screen, that same audience didn't seem to pay attention to what was going on behind the camera. Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmakers who more or less invented the genre, were replaced by aging white directors like Gordon Douglas and Henry Hathaway, or relatively new film school grads like Jonathan Kaplan. Paul Maslansky had been around for about a decade, making a name for himself as a producer, when he made his first and only effort as a director.

We have Diana "Sugar" Hill, the girlfriend of a guy who runs Club Haiti, where white people come to watch a mock voodoo show. A gangster wants to buy out Club Haiti, but it's not for sale. The boyfriend gets killed by some mobsters who get their duds from "Pimps 'r' Us. Sugar wants revenge and seeks out an old voodoo priestess who brings out a legendary voodoo priest, Samedi, from the ether. Samedi wakes up a small gang of dead slaves, zombies, who do most of the dirty work on behalf of Sugar Hill. The bad guys end up killed each in a unique way, one as the meal for some very hungry pigs. Sugar gets her revenge. Samedi goes back to the ether, with the chief gangster's very white and very racist girl friend carried away in his arms.

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This is a very PG rated horror movie. The violence usually involves a few trickles of blood. The sex consists of some shots revealing Marki Bey's cleavage. What would probably shock anyone not familiar with the blaxploitation genre is some of the racially charged language. It's no accident that as the head bad guy, Robert Quarry speaks with a Southern accent. Sugar calls her first victim "Whitey" and "Honky". There is the one black bad guy with the pimpadelic wardrobe, and name to match - Fabulous. What is curious is that when she's relaxing, or working as a fashion photographer, Sugar's hair is straight. While directing her "zombie hit men", Sugar has a big afro.

In his commentary track, Paul Maslansky never explains why he only directed one film. He gives credit for some of the look of the film to cinematographer Richard Jessup. Visually, the film was done economically, partially for budgetary reasons, but much of the action is filmed using lateral tracking shots and traveling shots, with little need for cross-cutting. The horror movie vibe is provided with the use of a fog machine and lots of spider webs.

Marki Bey, perhaps best known for a supporting turn in Hal Ashby's The Landlord plays the title role. Don Pedro Colley owns this film as the voodoo priest, Samedi, with his booming voice and hearty laugh. In top hat, and black jacket and pants, he's also the best dressed character here. It's no stretch to believe that this guy maintains a harem in the afterlife.

In his commentary, Maslansky provides a few moments to his first credited film as producer, Castle of the Living Dead, as well as his most prestigious film, The Russia House. And say what you will about the Police Academy series, Maslansky produced the first films directed by Walter Hill and Michael Reeves. Maslansky also has an one camera interview as do actors Richard Lawson, Don Pedro Colley and Charles Robinson, recalling what it was like when blaxploitation was often the only professional opportunity for black actors.

Posted by peter at 09:25 AM

June 14, 2015

Coffee Break

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Charlie Sheen in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola - 2013)

Posted by peter at 10:37 AM

June 11, 2015

Killer Cop

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La Polizia ha le Mani Legate
Luciano Ercoli - 1975
Raro Video BD Region A

The Italian title translates as "The police have the hands tied", although both that and Killer Cop are misleading regarding what goes on here. The official English language title was The Police can't Move. Quibbles about the title aside, this is one of Luciano Ercoli's better films of eight films he directed.

Without being overly quirky, the cop hero, Matteo Rolandi, looks more like an academic, has longish hair, and never goes anywhere without his paperback copy of Moby Dick. Rolandi has his own white whale, an old, slightly beat, Mercedes-Benz. Pursuit of a drug smuggler brings Rolandi to a hotel, coincidentally at the same time a bomb explodes. Supposedly the work of an unnamed radical group along the lines Italy's Red Brigade, Rolandi discovers that there are other forces at work with a different kind of agenda.

Things get complicated when Rolandi's best friend, a fellow cop, is murdered by the suspected bomber, and the investigation of the bombing is taken up by a judge who finds Rolandi to be a nuisance. The judge is played by Arthur Kennedy, providing a token of Hollywood star power, but the film mostly belongs to Claudio Cassinelli as Rolandi.

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Ercoli is especially good in filming the bombing of the hotel lobby, with a montage of flying body, lobby furnishing breaking apart, not quite in slow motion, slow enough to provide a sense of how much damage was done in something that would flash by in real life. There is a second explosion, with a car destroyed in a fire that lasts long enough to allow Kennedy to warm up his hands in the waning flames when he arrives at the scene. It is some of the throwaway moments that help distinguish Killer Cop, as when Rolandi's girlfriend pulls down her panties for a "quickie" in Rolandi's car, or Rolandi tosses his cigarette lighter onto the descending coffin of his friend prior to burial.

Ercoli also has a penchant here for several shots employing mirrors within shots, as well as glasses, and reflecting surfaces. The bomber has had his glasses taken from him in a scuffle before the bombing, so there is a sub-plot involving his own inability to see things accurately. But one might take that particular element further in that that Kennedy may have his own near-sightedness involving his interpretation of events, as well has how the audience, with Ercoli as guide, may view the activities of the real conspirators.

The film ends ambiguously. I would like to think that the inclusion of Moby Dick was no gimmick, but a comment on Rolandi's idealism in his role as as a policeman, as well as his obsession in pursuing the real criminals.

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Posted by peter at 06:18 AM

June 09, 2015

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus

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La mano de un hombre muerto / Le Sadique Baron von Klaus
Jesus Franco - 1962
Redemption Films BD Region A

In the opening credits, The Sadistic Baron von Klaus is credited as an adaptation of a novel by David Kuhne. As pointed out by Antonio Lazaro-Reboll in his extensively researched book, Spanish Horror Film, there is no indication that Jesus Franco actually wrote any published pulp novels prior to filmmaking. The existence of David Kuhne and his novel, with the title translated as "Hand of a Dead Man" are as fictional as the baron.

One of two films made in 1962, along with The Awful Dr. Orloff, we have the earliest Franco film in the horror genre, starring frequent Franco stock company player, Howard Vernon. And for the most part, Baron von Klaus looks like a gothic horror movie from the early Sixties, albeit one in a contemporary setting. There are mysterious deaths of young women, attributed to the ghost of the original Baron, who died about five-hundred years ago. There is the young descendant of the Baron, Ludwig, who may possibly inherited madness that has infected the men of the family. Ludwig shows up just in time to see his mother taker her last breath, though not before she hands over the key to the forbidden cellar. Could Uncle Max be the killer? Howard Vernon looks creepy enough to be the probable killer. Ludwig seems like a nice, clean-cut kid, especially with his cute fiancee, Karine, but there is something odd about a guy who shows up at the family castle wearing a black leather coat and pants. Without giving too much away, there is no ghost, but the killer couldn't be more obvious than when he tells his lover, "I love you to death", and, "I'm crazy about you".

It's all fairly standard stuff until a little more than an hour in the the film when the restaurant proprietor, played by Ana Castor, gets ready to go the bed, letting the audience take a nice gander at her garters and stockings while she pulls her dress over her head. For Señor Jess, he's just warming up. Going beyond what was usually seen even in most "adult" films of the time, is a scene in the basement with near nudity, whipping, some mild sadomasochism, and the delight of a female treated to oral sex. In other words, the kind of stuff of the Jesus Franco we know and love.

Even without kink and eroticism, there is some very nice wide screen black and white imagery. At it's best Franco makes use of light and darkness, especially in a night time chase scene, where cinephile Jesus includes one canted angle, because he's probably seen The Third Man several times. There is also one very long shadow stretching across the screen, of a woman walking alone on the small town street at night.

I would have to assume that budgetary constraints kept Franco from matching shots. In one scene taking place out doors during a winter night, it's snowing on one character, but not on the other. The film was presumably shot with most of the actors speaking Spanish. The French dubbing of this version is most off-kilter in an early scene of singing revelers. Someone also misspelled the name on the family crypt as Klous. I wish Redemption had been able to port over some of the elements from the Image DVD - the English dubbing, as well as the collection of alternate shots and outtakes. What I got from revisiting The Sadistic Baron von Klaus on blu-ray was a greater visual sense of the textures of stone walls, wooden floors, and the leaf covered swamp, said to be the home of the first, cursed, baron.

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Posted by peter at 08:15 AM

June 07, 2015

Coffee Break

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Greta Gerwig in To Rome with Love (Woody Allen - 2012)

Posted by peter at 04:28 AM

June 04, 2015

Spanish Horror Film

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Antonio Lazaro-Reboll - 2012
Edinburgh University Press

To their credit, Edinburgh University Press has been reissuing their hardcover genre studies in paperback at more affordable prices.

This is the first English language book devoted to horror films from Spain. Even for those who may not have more than passing interest in the films beyond a few critically acclaimed titles, what makes this book valuable are discussions on how one approaches genre films as a subject of serious discussion. The book opens up with a discussion about the consumption of films, the difference between cinephiles and cinephages. What is applicable to all genre studies is that while there are those enthusiasts who may indulge in certain genres for their own sake, Lazaro-Reboll suggests that it is some of these very fans who are at the forefront in recognizing genre artists, well before the critical establishment. It is also noted how some of these fans went from contributing to both the professional magazines and DIY 'zines, to becoming filmmakers themselves, most significantly, Jaume Balaguero.

Of course there can be no discussion about Spanish horror films without a discussion of the two Francos, Francisco and Jesus. It was because of several arcane rules regarding the production of horror films made through 1975, that Jesus Franco got around the censors by making international coproductions, and Jacinto Molina Alvarez had found fame as Paul Naschy. Even before filmmakers started making English language productions for international distribution, the fictional locations could be anywhere except Spain, while the actors were expected to restrict their work within the genre. Jesus Franco survived Francisco Franco, changes in film ratings, ebbs and flows of financial support, and indifference from Spain's critical establishment to finally get late career recognition after almost forty years of filmmaking.

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Horror Rises from the Tomb (Carlos Aured - 1973)

There is a look at the disjointed distribution in Spain of the classic films from Universal, the influence of Hammer Films and Roger Corman's "Poe Cycle" in the early Sixties, and how a television producer from Uruguay, Narcisco Ibanez Serrador helped make horror a popular staple of Spanish television.

Of the older films, Lazaro-Reboll has an interesting analysis of the "Blind Dead" series by Armando de Ossorio as a critique of Francoist Spain. Eloy de la Iglesia is discussed in terms of how he addresses gay identity within the confines of genre filmmaking and censorship. Also included is an overview of the English language, Spanish productions of Brian Yuzna, and in greater detail, the Spanish films Guillermo del Toro.

Conspicuous in its absence is more than some passing references to Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive. Aside from interest in the film contrasting the horror of the Spanish Civil War with the onscreen horrors of James Whale's Frankenstein, it seems odd not to be discussed when several pages are devoted to del Toro's two films that take place in the same era, Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage. Additionally notable is that the young girl at the center of Erice's film, Ana Torrent, grew up and starred in another film discussed in some detail, Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis, as well as a horror film not mentioned in this book, also with a narrative relating to the Civil War, The Haunting by Elio Quiroga. To his credit, Lazaro-Reboll address the exclusion of Sprit of the Beehive and a handful of other titles.

Otherwise, Spanish Horror Film provides a very useful formal introduction to films and filmmakers as well as analyzing the conditions under which these films were made. There is a good sized filmography listed with Spanish, and in most cases, English titles. The only other flaw to be mentioned is how no one seemed to notice the erroneous credit that would make the least discerning fanboy wince: it was Wes Craven, not Sam Raimi, who directed A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Spectre (Mateo Gil - 2006)

Posted by peter at 02:42 PM

June 01, 2015

Taking of Tiger Mountain

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Zhì qu weihu shan
Tsui Hark - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

During the closing credits of Taking Tiger Mountain we see what is suppose to be an imagined alternative ending. The hero, Yang, finds the villain, Hawk, has a secret runway in a huge fortress. Yang attempts to keep Hawk from flying out on a small bi-plane. Yang hops on the plane, barely hanging on, and finally causes Hawk to crash, with the plane and Hawk falling down what looks like thousands of feet off a cliff. This is the kind of action scene one might expect from Indiana Jones, and Tsui makes no secret of his wanting to be thought of as the Chinese Steven Spielberg. As it turned out, that scene was part of the ending that Tsui originally planned and filmed until some government officials requested a scene closer to, if not reality, at least the novel and the Chinese Revolutionary Opera.

The opera and the film versions are based on the Qu Bo novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, published in 1957, inspired by Qu's experiences. A member of the People's Liberation Army, Qu fought against the various warlords in Northeast China. Qu married a nurse who was stationed in the same region. Qu was about twenty-four years old when the events in his novel take place, in 1947. There is a young Army leader and a nurse who could well be the literary stand-ins for real life characters. Tsui's film, the third version, might best be described as having been inspired by history, choosing to present the story with some of the more fantastic elements from the previous versions of this story.

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A small band of about thirty soldiers take shelter in what remains of a small village, Leather Creek, virtually destroyed by bandit gangs. After assuring the villagers that no harm will come their way, a bandit is captured, and with him, a map coveted by Hawk, the leader of a thousand man bandit army. The guide for the region, Yang, pretends to be a bandit, and works his way into the castle fortress of Hawk. The fortress is part of the spoils of war left by the defeated Japanese army. The small people's army takes on Hawk's huge force through various means belying their actual numbers.

On his way to Hawk's fortress, Yang fights an impossibly large Siberian tiger. I don't know if the real Yang had encountered any tigers, but the scene was probably created to establish his abilities as a hero appropriate for a national epic. The main villain, Hawk, has a bird-like face with his beakish nose. Tony Leung Ka-fai is unrecognizable with the combination of make-up and a fat suit. Hawk is accompanied by a hawk, like the tiger, oversized, and trained to peck to death any of Hawk's designated enemies. Tsui Hark's films are not known for their subtlety, and some of the exaggeration was probably inspired both by the opera and the 1970 film version that Tsui briefly refers to in a couple of brief excerpts.

Taking of Tiger Mountain was seen as a 3D film in China. What we get in the home video version can only suggest some of what Tsui had done to take advantage of the technology. There are several shots playing with various planes of depth, primarily of the soldiers in the snow, between the trees, as well as the previously mentioned shot looking straight down the fortress edge. During battle scenes, bullets temporarily pause in mid-flight, and blood spurts out and freezes for a few moments. Tsui has eliminated most of the more political elements, primarily to appeal to the contemporary pan-Chinese audience. Some of the historical aspects may be lost for those viewers without some knowledge of post World War II China. Taking of Tiger Mountain may be best enjoyed as a continuation of Tsui's portrayal of fantastic heroes rather than verbatim history.

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Posted by peter at 07:16 PM