Fired from his band and hard up for cash, guitarist and vocalist Dewey Finn finagles his way into a job as a fifth-grade substitute teacher at a private school, where he secretly begins teaching his students the finer points of rock 'n' roll. The school's hard-nosed principal is rightly suspicious of Finn's activities. But Finn's roommate remains in the dark about what he's doing.
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Well, I got my computer a few days ago, so I am now officially back. I had hoped to have my first post back be capsules for all the remaining films I saw at the Toronto festival, but I have come to realize that if I do that, I’ll probably never start up again. And I do want to get into the routine of posting regularly, so I’ll just start right now with the ones I have done, and a separate post on a few other subjects.
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003, 8 )
This one might be strictly for the Tsai Ming-liang fanboys — but I am one, so bear with me. The typical Tsai scene, for those unfamiliar with his work, is of a single shot with the camera at rest and just looking for a very long time, on average more than a minute, I’d guess. Rarely do the characters even speak (I counted fewer than 15 lines from all the characters of GOOD BYE DRAGON INN).
GOOD BYE DRAGON INN takes place in a movie palace that seats about 1,000 people, but has only three or four in it, watching the 1960s Chinese martial arts classic DRAGON INN. And they get on each other’s nerves in the most unexpected ways. His characters are mostly alienated from the world and each other, and Tsai’s framing traps them in social space. His minimalist style makes every tiny gesture and sound effect take on enormous significance. Tsai makes us just *look* at the world for the sake of seeing, and he is so good at playing with our expectations of screen space that he makes us aware that we are looking.
Oh, I’m sorry … I’m making his films sound to the uninitiated like the kind of arid, pretentious crap I usually hoot at … (Victor adjusts his critical lenses) … ummm,
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN was really pretty funny, which is what makes it worth seeing and what separates Tsai for practitioners of this “master shot” style, most of whom I can’t abide. He has a very precise and apropos sense of humor — dry, wry, understated, self-aware. Both this film and WHAT TIME IS IT THERE have some of the qualities of Steven Wright’s comedy routines. They’re both so understated that the understatement eventually becomes part of the joke. There’s one shot involving three people at a urinal that goes on and on and on for so long that you start to laugh because you start having subversive thoughts like “how big ARE the drinks in Taiwanese theaters.” Dramatically speaking, the scene goes on for far too long, and that’s [part of] what’s funny about it. This film is even funny where there are no punch lines — you know you’re in the hands of a genius when you look at a burning cigarette for two minutes, waiting for the ash to hit its mark. What I thought was the last shot (it lasts about eight minutes and nothing happens in it) is such a sad lament that it brought a lump to my throat — it has the poignance of a man imagining his own funeral (and Tsai is barely 45).
GOOD BYE DRAGON INN is definitely slow-moving and not to every taste, and it probably isn’t the best place to start an inquiry into Tsai’s ouevre (too many of the laughs are self-parodying in-jokes that depend on at least general knowledge of his other films). Tsai is definitely a taste worth acquiring, but I’d recommend starting with THE HOLE, in which his style is applied to … a musical.
AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003, 4)
This could have been the MIRACLE IN MILAN of the Iranian flavor of neorealist social protest films. Like MIRACLE (my favorite of Vittorio De Sica’s films) it had a comic-absurd premise — in this case about a young Afghan woman who secretly goes to school, against her traditionalist father’s wishes, and decides to run for president of her country now that the Taliban is gone. It could have made a subtle, pungent fable about the state of women under Islam, especially if flavored with the magic realism of which De Sica’s film was a precursor. Actually, Miss Makhmalbaf’s mother Marziyeh Meshkini already has made such a film — a trio of featurettes called THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN.
Instead, FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON stays with the style of simple miserabilism, while plotwise just blurting off in various directions — a boy courts her, there are other girls at the school and they debate liberal feminism vs. deifference feminism, she tries to get her photo taken for her presidential campaign, refugee families feud over chickens and radio volumes, she meets a French soldier, she changes shoes, her father doesn’t want to return to Kabul because it’s a den of sin, more refugees arrive. It contains a lot of things, but never really succeeds in being about any of them. The basic premise about running for president is so outlandish that the film needed to be tightly-wound and focused to work as an comic fable, like Miss Makhmalbaf’s segment in the September 11 omnibus movie, about a teacher trying to explain the terrorist attacks to some Afghan refugee children in Iran. Instead FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON feels more like a rambling, rough draft of a film than a film.
The film has one other problem — but it’s a major one, and one that may ruin good memories of other Iranian films. For more than a decade now, The Charter Member Of The Axis Of Evil has had one of the world’s most internationally-respected and artistically-successful film industries. Quite a few of its prize-winning films, just like AFTERNOON, featured nonprofessional actors and impoverished backgrounds — A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES, KANDAHAR, THE WIND WILL CARRY US, CHILDREN OF HEAVEN, and such early Abbas Kiarostami films as WHERE IS MY FRIEND’S HOME. But AFTERNOON was the first film for which I felt a qualm others have had before, and that is that most of the acting is quite bad. In fact, sometimes painfully bad. I repeatedly noticed the lines were written/delivered in an overly repetitive, overexplanatory style (a sample from the father: “Bin Laden should not be sent to the infidels because they will kill him. Because he is a Muslim, he is our guest. So he should not be turned over to the American infidels to be killed.”) And I could “see” the actors “acting” and in an extremely stilted, mannered way, as though they were reciting written speeches to the camera.
This would be unfortunate enough in itself if it were just AFTERNOON, but this is a complaint that others have had about some of these Iranian movies, but which only occurred to me at certain sequences in KANDAHAR — the several scenes in that earlier film that were in English. Not being able to speak a language (as I do not Afghan or Farsi) hampers your ability to tell whether someone is delivering his lines convincingly — it’s all just sounds with a subtitle. After AFTERNOON though, I’m now afraid to give another look to some of these earlier Iranian movies, several of which resemble AFTERNOON in the ways noted, but which have been prominent in and around my Year-End Top 10s. Ignorance may have been bliss.
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003, 7)
Jack Black plays a broke schlub who’s been kicked out of his rock band. So when he answers a call from a rich-kid school intended for his substitute-teacher roommate, he decides to muscle in on the well-paying gig, even though he can’t teach and knows nothing. But with his attitude and the energy of rock, by the end of the movie, his class is a hit at a local Battle of the Bands, he’s won over the teachers and the kids’ parents.
This movie is really stupid, since this scam wouldn’t last five minutes. (Don’t posh schools ask for credentials or at least check IDs?) SCHOOL OF ROCK takes place in that alternate universe where Battle of the Bands contests take place during weekday school hours and it takes just five minutes to change from school uniform into rock band costume. Not a single plot event is believable (he wins over the teachers with the Whitney Houston philosophy of education — “I believe the children are our future,” etc.), and it has a really distasteful subtext about how stupid is academic success and how you gotta be pissed off at the world (check out Theo on this point). I also had to watch it sitting next to this grown man with a 2-year-old son sobbing like a little girl throughout.
I enjoyed this film immensely.
Just speaking personally in the context of seeing SCHOOL OF ROCK at a festival, if you’re gonna see 40 films in 9 days, you’ll go insane without a couple of breaks with 100 minutes of Hollywood brain-candy. While it’s clearly obeying the same feel-good rock movie formula as, for example Justine Bateman’s SATISFACTION, SCHOOL OF ROCK uses that formula as well as it can be used. The high-achieving kids whom Black’s character melds into a rock band give uniformly excellent performances without one of them ever being showy, and Joan Cusack is not completely wasted in the school-principal role, usually a black hole in movies not named FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (all hail director Richard Linklater).
But SCHOOL OF ROCK is basically “The Jack Black Show” and he, or at least his comic persona, was born for this role. Showily rude but at heart a coward, infantile, self-centered, hyper-knowledgeable about one thing in life (rock music, in this case), he’s playing the Gen-X uber-slacker that he defined in HIGH FIDELITY. While SCHOOL OF ROCK is not aiming for the throat — it’s too much a commercial feel-good film for that — it’s more critical of Black than we might expect. For example, consider one of the biggest laugh lines — “Sell my guitars,” he says, all indignant. “I’m an artist. Would you tell Picasso to sell his guitars?” Part of the joke is the absurd self-regard of comparing himself to Pablo Picasso (and we’ve seen him perform, so we know he doesn’t even compare to Pablo Cruise), but part of it is also that he doesn’t seem to know Picasso was a painter — he’s just “Famous Artist” for Black to name-drop. But then compare that to the fanatically detailed curriculum on the history of rock of which we get an glance, albeit unfortunately brief. Speaking as someone more or less Black’s age who remembers most of the plots from “The Jeffersons” and has favorite seasons depending on cast members and character trajectories (it jumped the shark when George and Tom became buddies, BTW) … ouch.
TIFF Days Three and Four (grades from Days 5, 6 and 7)
(”School of Rock” is briefly mentioned in this.)
TIFF Days Three and Four (grades from Days 5, 6 and 7)
Let’s do the easy stuff first, my grades from the last three days of the Toronto International Film Festival:
DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003) — 9
THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003) — 6
A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003) — 4
THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003) — 6
LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003) — 7
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003) — 8
AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003) — 4
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003 ) — 7
21 GRAMS (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 2003) — 6
THE GRUB STAKE (Bert Van Tuyle/Nell Shipman, USA/Canada, 1923) — 3
SHATTERED GLASS (Billy Bob, USA, 2003) — 7
And here are the capsules for the remaining films I saw through Day Four:
BRIGHT FUTURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003, 6)
This is easily my favorite film by Mr. No Relation, but this really isn’t saying as much as it might sound. Plus the Kiyoshi fans I know think this is one of his weaker efforts — call it a Kurosawa film for people who don’t like Kurosawa. The plot begins with two slacker friends, Yuji and Mamoru, and their boss, who wants to relive his youth. But sometimes whole subplots and sequences play themselves out merely to set up or get to the heart of something else (think THE CRYING GAME or CITY OF GOD), and the heart of the film is a pet jellyfish that Mamoru left Yuji, and the relationship between Yuji and Mamoru’s father.
What sets BRIGHT FUTURE apart from KK’s other films for me is that this time, he has a metaphor (the jellyfish) and stays with it and doesn’t try to get too obscure (CURE ended in a blizzard of non sequiturs; PULSE was just wtf? throughout). We’re kinda expecting this to morph into THE JELLYFISH THAT ATE TOKYO, since most of Kurosawa’s earlier films were horror films of one sort or another. But here, he stays with the film’s third father-son relationship and how it deals with “the jellyfish.” What is the jellyfish a metaphor for — the “sons” friendship, the future, adaptation to environment, all sorts of things (it’s one of those deliberately all-unifying symbols, like Moby Dick).
The film is shot on two different qualities of digital video, and the effect is a grungy, dirty, washed out world where the red on the jellyfish stands out as practically the only primary color, and results in a truly glorious image as a parade of glowing red balls swim through a grungy canal out to the sea. Sometimes the metaphors, hooks and symbols are just too obviously (and sometimes explicitly) metaphors, hooks and symbols — they don’t really work as themselves (there are two father figures; one of them has two sets of sons; the jellyfish revert to their nature once freed; fatherhood is transferred). BRIGHT FUTURE is a very schematic movie, with a deeply ironic and unsubtle ending. Still, I didn’t leave the theater bored or indifferent, and that’s always good.
This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a Mr. Big villain that has a tracheotomy and so speaks through a machine, like Ned in SOUTH PARK, and smokes through the hole in his throat. This movie has a hero who jumps through a coiled-up ring of barbed wire, at full speed. This movie does not use wires or computer imaging. This movie’s hero runs over the shoulders of six bad guys in a line. This movie’s hero jumps over one moving car at full speed and slides under another at full speed. This movie has an Australian villain who snarls “Thai women come to my country to be hookers.” This movie has a fight in which a refrigerator is used as a weapon. This movie has two guys falling from a third-story window, and one plants a full kick on the other while in midair. Did you get that … “while in midair”? This movie has a hero who can execute a jump kick to the head while his legs are on fire. Did you get that … “while his legs are on fire”? This movie’s villain has a secret lair in the mountains. This movie has a villain who breaks the sidekick’s arm with a chop against the joint (think Joe Theismann); the hero retaliates by using the same maneuver to tear off that villain’s leg. This movie has a Buddha head crush two villains at once. This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the hardened gorehounds at Toronto Midnight Madness (and the series’ first-ever standing ovation, according to the programmer). This movie had the first question for the director be “how many stuntmen were killed in making this movie?” (A: None.) This movie didn’t let out, because of delays and a lengthy Q-and-A, until 3 a.m. at the end of (for me) a six-film day; I was still on too much of an andrenaline high to sleep for more than an hour. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.
THE MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP (George Hickenlooper, USA, 2003, 7)
A small bit of genius here in the fact that this is a moral film that is never moralistic. You might not even recognize until, purely hypothetically speaking of course, you are looking through your viewing notes in order to write your capsule live from a Toronto Internet cafe, just how thoroughly it repudiates the lifestyle and mores of its titular character, Rodney Bingenheimer.
The illusion and transitoriness of celebrity, in this case a disc jockey who was one of the great celebrity hangers-on of all time, has been done a thousand times before — but seldom with both this much thoroughness and with this much understanding for what made the lifestyle attractive in the first place without coming across as a scolding jeremiad (except in one scene, involving a member of the girl band the Runaways). It’s mostly a bright, fast-paced and funny look at one man’s journey through the sexdrugsandrocknroll lifestyle, and is consumable on those terms.
Bingenheimer was never exactly famous, but he was the ultimate plugged-in guy, and he had a knack for spotting The Next Hot Thing in pop music. This in-between status gave him thousands of celebrity photos with seemingly everybody who’s anybody — a fetish from a very young age; he even recorded a call to JFK’s White House, which we hear. He also had access to limitless sex. Groupies could get close enough to him, but not the actual celebrities, for a hookup. He got more than Robert Plant by being the next-best thing and available — which about says it all. The movie compares Bingenheimer to a West Coast Andy Warhol, but the amazing photos and footage in the film suggest another comparison — Woody Allen’s Zelig character, in that he seemingly morphed into whatever crowd was The In Crowd.
Yet you come out of the theater wondering just how much self-knowledge this guy has. He’s kept on at a radio station merely for show, and he doesn’t seem to realize that he has helped wreck the life of a man who went out West to become famous like him. There are several stand-out references to Kato Kaelin (a punchline) and Phil Spector (potentially a murderer). His father and stepmother are clearly, without saying it but showing it in the placement of photos, ashamed of him. And his girlfriend doesn’t love him.
My fellow TIFF geek Noel Murray said as we walked out the theater that the girlfriend and parent scenes were the documentarian rubbing Rodney’s nose in it. I initially told Noel that I didn’t really think so, but I have changed my mind. However, I have to say that it just didn’t bother me — partly because the film filmed Rodney’s holy moment (dumping his mother’s ashes); partly because Rodney makes it equally clear that he doesn’t love his girlfriend either (he says he’d move to London in a jiffy if he saw someone better); and partly because he seems so oblivious that self-knowledge might have required it.
TIME OF THE WOLF (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2003, 8 )
The first 30-40 minutes of this movie are as good as anything Haneke has ever made, which is saying a lot. The man is the best pure director in the world, but his script lets him down in the middle of the movie. Society breaks down for reasons that are never explained and are thus not important — and the movie’s brilliant beginning shows Isabelle Huppert and her family trying to get by on a day-to-day basis (or a minute-to-minute one, actually) in a world where nothing can be counted on and all social rules have evaporated.
The opening scene, of a confrontation in the cabin, is as tight and tense as anything in FUNNY GAMES. The camera successfully follows a parakeet as it flies inside a cabin; a night-time closeup of a burning branch becomes a glowing speck on the horizon as the first outsider arrives (think of the famous horizon shot in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA); and a much bigger ember becomes the first group of outsiders. It’s all formally breathtaking, along with taut and suspenseful. Much of the action in the early part of the film occurs at night in the countryside, with no source of light beyond the fire the family keeps or the branches they can burn for a few seconds, but Haneke makes everything perfectly intelligible (except that which isn’t supposed to be). This family basically is slow to realize that they are no longer living in the bourgeois liberal social world, but Hobbes’ state of nature.
It is a critique of the modern bourgeoisie, but not one that many liberals are very eager to push — that if social relations are constructed, then outside the rules of society, the only rule is the law of the nature — force, the time of the wolf (they even meet a conscious outlaw), the war of all against all. Even the occasional grace notes are reversed (the smashing of a grave). However, Haneke is too smart to realize that the state of nature can’t last — “man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle says, and so we get the family joining bands of people trying to form an embryonic society on the basis of survival. Haneke does “state of nature,” though, so much better than he does “civil society.” TIME OF THE WOLF just loses focuses about the midway point amidst an undisciplined flood of new characters that we never really come to know or care about, and no film has room for more than five or six archetypes.
There are still flashes of Haneke’s formal brilliance — a closeup of tears flowing down Huppert’s impassive face at night cuts to a blinding shot of a lush, verdant, sunny morning in the forest; the way he frames the single shot of a child’s funeral. But it’s not enough, though the film bounces back in the last two majestic shots, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that during the last one, a lengthy shot, I was muttering under my breath “please let this be the last shot.” And it was. thanks mickey.
GOOD BYE, LENIN (Wolfgang Becker, Germany, 2003, 7)
This movie is gonna get a lot of flack from U.S. conservatives when it’s released because it’s basically a Communism nostalgia comedy, but we should give this film a spin, even though it will obviously attract plenty of the wrong kind of praise. Just keep in mind — it’s a light comedy. Basically the family mixup genre, but there’s a lot of heart in it, too — my TIFF geek friend Daniel Owen said it’s basically “everybody loves his mum.” And if that means harboring fond memories of communist tyranny .. well … she’s still your mum.
Plus, to the extent the film has a political point, it’s *making fun of* East German believers and their Western excuse-makers. Sure enough, the reliable nitwits at the Toronto Festival Guidebook People’s Central Committee refer to the unreconstructed East German Communist mother at the plot’s center as an “idealist” (while also somehow saying the film “steers clear of broad comedy,” which I guess is true if the Three Stooges set the standard). If you could groove on the Australian comedy THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION and ignore the idiotic critical praise it got, this film will work like gangbusters.
In 1989, an East Berlin true believer gets a heart attack while seeing the East German police be mean (imagine that). She slips into a coma and only awakens in early 1990, after the Berlin Wall has fallen and while the country is preparing for annexation by West Germany. Rather than risk another heart attack from her seeing all the decadent consumer capitalism consuming the Workers and Peasants Paradise (stop laughing, people), her son decides to take the bedridden woman home, so he can control the environment and maintain the illusion that East Germany is doing just super. OK, it’s an idiotic premise (he’s obviously gonna have to tell her someday), but it’s basically just Rip Von Winkle.
Once it gets cooking, however, this film becomes very funny, as the son has to go to increasingly elaborate lengths to keep his mother, whose health and thus mobility are improving, from finding out. The best scenes involve creating fake East German newscasts to tape for mother, and they are a perfect parody of Communist kitsch, Communist lies, and this woman’s limitless will to believe (and not just hers). The 1989 footage of East Germans climbing into West German embassies becomes quite literally the opposite, and she finds it believable. And every shred of the “news report” was a lie. But telling lies was the only way she could continue to believe in socialism and communism. Imagine that.
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003, 6)
(Open with map of Canada, star on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Images are in soft-focus, using high-contrast black-and-white. And no sound unless otherwise noted.)
The largest city in Canada, known to its residents as Toronto, decided to host a film festival, to find the saddest sound in the world. There were many contenders, from every corner of the globe.
(Cue Bollywood music clip; followed by Japanese samurai yell; Italian cursing; French philosophy debates; the sound of seats hitting the back of chairs as people walk out of 29 PALMS.)
But the saddest sound in the world turns out to be unrequited love, the tears flowing from the dashed expectations of a cinephile betrayed. (Cue picture of Victor over a broken heart). He went to the frigid Canadian north in expectation of a masterpiece from the man. (Insert picture of Guy Maddin, gleam on teeth) who made the greatest live-action short Victor had ever set eyes upon.
(Cue 20-second clip from HEART OF THE WORLD, with music soundtrack, preferably one of the cannon shots, depending on the negotiations on the rights.)
Further, he drank from this wizard (insert picture of Maddin, in Merlin costume) the most bizarre cocktail (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow) he had ever seen. This cocktail was a DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY, as the Merlin of the barstool (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow, and also wearing a pointed wizard hat) called it, made from the ingredients Murnau, Mahler, Daghiliev, and Dracula (use flash inserts for mugs of first three men, George Hamilton for the fourth). This feature inspired Victor to start writing a useless blog that nobody ever reads. And all this Maddin (flash edit mug) material came just in the past few months.
(Cue 30s Art Deco title card from THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.)
An encounter with Mr. Maddin’s latest filled Victor’s heart (insert a beating heart from some animal; no goats) with anticipation as he took off (jet sound effect) on his trip to the Great White North. He paid two 2003 Canadian dollars to struggle through the Toronto Metro (subway sound effect) to the far-away Elgin Screening Room (North Pole image). And at first, all was as expected. The good Mr. Maddin (flashback to bartender/wizard costume) produced the expected deadpan absurdist comedy (pan along Isabella Rossellini’s beer-filled glass legs) done in an over-the-top pastiche of early cinema melodramas (cut to Mark McKinney in Snidely American Whiplash costume and Cheshire Cat grin), the softest black-and-white photography in the world (cut to practically any image), obvious studio sets (show Winnipeg in the snow), and fruity line readings (cue a clip from the pair of Winnipeg’s “Saddest Music in the World” contest commentators).
For a period of approximately one hour, perhaps less in the metric system or the Canadian exchange rate, Victor was delighted. One particular laugh of Victor’s (cue high-pitched loud laugh) was even heard and recognized at the farthest reaches of the Elgin (cut to quizzical looks from Mike D’Angelo, Noel Murray and Daniel Owen).
(Closeup of a giant, generic script crushing a Maddin doll as it tips over.)
But then the gods of cinema decreed that there should be a plot. That romantic alignments between the main characters must change repeatedly (cut to shot from the swapping orgy in THE ICE STORM), and that we must be made to care about them as human beings, rather than as ciphers and signifiers (cut to Cinema Studies pupil salivating; Victor in an ascot looking puzzled) for Maddin’s virtuosity and demented sense of humor.
So the good people of Toronto decided (cut to funeral pyres, with the big red word “SARS” superimposed) that this, then, was the saddest sound in the world. The sound of a dejected Victor leaving the Elgin (cut to North Pole shot, with penguins added) after expecting and then halfway getting a masterpiece. But by the end having been left merely with the sound of one hand clapping. What a sad sound.
[…] film that would be put off by the original “MUAY THAI WARRIOR”). In fact I wrote a capsule very much like it a couple of years ago (2nd capsule down). And, as a measure of this film’s awesomeness, without having to reuse one […]
article by Belisario There are many movies that portray heavy metal, but the ones addressing extreme metal could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all of them are rather recent. In such a mainstream format as cinema, it is no wonder why extreme metal has remained largely out of radar, although it […]
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