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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 28

“Last year, a series of Fulci’s films and several exhibitions of postwar Italian painting coincided on New York’s cultural calendar. Shows of Schifano’s work and that of several other figures in the Italian avant-garde of that period, such as Alighiero Boetti, Giulio Paolini, Alberto Burri, and Fabio Mauri, colonized uptown art galleries. Downtown at Anthology Film Archives, the Italian film programming collective Malastrana presented “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist,” an October showcase of 15 films by the Italian director. Though it’s safe to say there was little overlap in the crowds viewing the post-war paintings and those reveling in grindhouse gore, the two seemingly distant bodies of work bear a number of distinct points of comparison and reference.” Chris Shields points out the numerous debts and points of contact between postwar Italian art and the postwar Italian horror film, particularly the bleak, “texturally obsessed” landscapes of Fulci.

“Apart from the idyllic partisan forest, there also exists the tragic universe beyond the forest’s bounds. These two universes, closed on themselves with heightened genre definitiveness and finality, oppose one another and define each other through this opposition. In the forest reigns early autumn, with its sun shining through the luxuriantly yellow foliage. But around the forest is a pre-winter season, with its bare wastelands, where under heavy skies and wind skeletal trees are stripped of their leaves and burned down huts stand still. During some of the shots the viewer is startled: we’re seeing the landscapes from IVAN’S CHILDHOOD.” A newly translated excerpt from Evgenii Margolit’s 2012 book The Living and the Dead places Boris Barnet’s A Good Lad as the wellspring of Soviet war films—despite its unorthodoxy and official banning. Via Mubi.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 21

Good Morning is inarguably the least loved and least representative in the Ozu oeuvre. But as is often true of early comedy in more or less anybody’s oeuvre—whether or not they’re known as comic artists—Good Morning is one of the seeds from which Ozu’s later works grow, a sort of first principle. It is perhaps a more intricately structured investigation of what we can say through the walls of time and age and experience erected even between parents and children, siblings, lovers. It is a chamber piece for all the human linguistic instruments: fart and sigh, small talk and drunken ramble, all the possible declarations of weakness, suspicion, compromise, and love of which you could conceive.” I’d say Annie Julia Wyman’s initial statement up there is much more than arguable, but past that her praise of Ozu’s celebration of the wordless means by which we convey love—including, yes, farts—is spot on.

“It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!” Mark Le Fanu traces the oppressive state of mind under which Tarkovsky conceived Stalker as a hidden religious allegory, and briefly recounts the horrifying ordeal of the shoot, in which the third time (filming the picture) might have been the charm but also the reason so many of the crew, director included, succumbed to cancer.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.

Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.

Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?

In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.

What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?

It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 14

“The three features Berger and Tanner made together are essentially films about class. Characters are struggling to live life after political failure, finding ways to resume their resistance to a value system that remains ever-present and crushing. Berger, as a writer and as a human being—the two were never truly separated—was engaged in a similar process. His work became increasingly focused on the poor and working class following his move to Quincy, and he was searching for a form to match his subjects.” Craig Hubert traces the political and formal evolution—which would lead to the dissolution of the partnership—of the three films that writer John Berger and director Alain Tanner made together. Via David Hudson.

At Criterion, a pair of essays on crime films that couldn’t have less in common. Adrian Martin traces the history of distillation that resulted in Bresson’s final film L’argent standing alone even within such a unique filmography. (“Rather, the ominous “agent” at work here is money: the workings of an entire capitalist system boiled down to the movement of a forged note and the unstoppable catastrophe that it triggers. As money travels, it dehumanizes everyone it touches, no matter their class status or religious or ideological beliefs. What, in other hands, could be played as the premise for a screwball comedy (the phony dollar bill that caused such riotous havoc in a small-town community!) is treated by Bresson as the darkest tragedy.”) While Benjamin Mercer salutes one of Japan’s finer directors of detective films, still underacknowledged in the West, Yoshitaro Nomura. (“The director was certainly something more than an ace at operating within any given genre, often avoiding clichés, combining narrative modes in unusual ways, and wisely taking a page from Matsumoto in his eye for telling details and attention to contemporaneous social realities. Nomura’s films are perhaps most remarkable, though, for their immersive sense of place, most strikingly felt when their protagonists find themselves amid what is to them foreign terrain, if still on Japanese soil.”)

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 7

Freshly returned from their pilgrimage to Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer three articles outlining their fresh discoveries and welcome reacquaintances, from large-format experiments that actually predate moving pictures to the latest from Agnès Varda. Whether breaking down the humor in an early Ophüls or reveling in the fine early adaptors to sound from Mexico, the pair remind us that marvels lay scattered throughout the history of film, waiting to be revealed by the light.

“How to be adequate to this time of being in-between and not yet decided? This is what S?mai seems to have asked himself. The question determines the style of the film, which is in constant flux. Comedy is life seen in long shot, tragedy is life seen close-up, Chaplin said. What to do when it is precisely a question of avoiding the choice of genre? S?mai’s answer is to adopt a perpetual middle distance. In this middle distance, not enough is seen to let us say with any certitude that we are seeing an event and that we know what an event is. At the same time we also see too much, so much that we have to look away, as if the event were too powerful, overwhelming.” Chris Fujiwara finds Shinji S?mai’s Typhoon Club a perfect match of meaning and methods, its own transcendence of genre reflecting its lead character’s aim to rise above the social demands of his school. Via David Hudson.

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Blu-ray: ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on Blue Underground

Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.

Blue Underground

The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.

Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 1

“The sheer pleasure in filming that can be found in just about all of Gréville’s works touched me at the time and still moves me today: fleetingly present in commissions (Le port du désir, 1954, deceptively present, and containing a beautiful underwater sequence, in Dorothée cherche l’amour, 1945, which also has a very well-directed gunfight); and sustained throughout his best works (Secret Lives, Noose, Pour une nuit d’amour, Le Diable souffle, Remous, Brief Ecstasy, parts of L’Envers du paradis, 1953, and L’Accident). This joy in filming bears no relationship to the visual brio of a Duvivier, the dazzling rigor of a Jean Grémillon or a Max Ophüls. It privileges surprise, the pileup of ideas, the flow of images that recalls wordplay, without ever being in danger of excess or ridicule. Gréville doesn’t recoil from special effects, doesn’t hesitate to divide the screen in two like a checkerboard in which the heads of his characters are inlaid, or set doves into flight above the Panthéon (in Menaces), and this audacity often pays off, even if it may make proponents of the sober and the natural smile.” Edmond Gréville enjoyed a long career in both France and England, but his films have mostly fallen to obscurity; a status, Bertrand Tavernier’s impassioned advocacy insists, in need of correction.

“So determining how much of the plot originated with Stannard and how much with Hitchcock would be difficult. (Hitch took no cowriting credit, but then he often didn’t, though he was almost always closely involved with the scripting of his films.) It could be that the director picked up ideas here that he would go on to repeat and develop in his later work or, equally possibly, that the plot of The Lodger allowed him scope to explore preoccupations that he had already been mulling over.” Philip Kemp emphasizes The Lodger’s role as the first Hitchcock film worthy of the title Hitchcockian—though he overreaches in claiming this begins Hitch’s fascination with blondes, a trope the director literally kicked off his career with in the opening scene of his debut The Pleasure Garden.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 23

“Though Le trou is remarkably more austere, it is still in the tradition of all of Becker’s previous movies, built as they are out of lost time. A constellation of glances, gestures, and acts of physical grace, the film is an unlikely blend of styles. If the overwhelming feeling is for the pleasure derived from the professional way Becker’s inmates treat their escape, there is also a flipside feeling of moments spent relaxing between key sequences.” Christopher Small burnishes the reputation of the still underrated Jacques Becker by the most direct means available to an auteurist cinephile: direct comparison (of three of Becker’s films) to Howard Hawks.

“Like Leos Carax, Jarmusch is a filmmaker of romantic and poetic fantasy conceits in which a certain nostalgie de la boue always plays a part. But unlike Carax, Jarmusch’s sense of fantasy is always grounded in at least a superficial sense of banal reality; even his century-old vampires occupy the recognizably mundane quarters of Detroit and Tangier. Paterson is of course less obvious as a fantasy than Only Lovers Left Alive, yet its utopian vision of small-town America as a friendly multiracial community in which every person appears to be some sort of artist is clearly sustainable only as a defiant poetic conceit that flies in the face of a Trump-led America, however gentle its multiple articulations might be.” Cycling through Jarmusch’s tendencies as a minimalist, fabulist, and poet Jonathan Rosenbaum places Paterson‘s everyday utopia in the director’s ouvre with his typical keen observation–barring the odd assertion that Rizwan Manji is Latino. Via David Hudson.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of June 16

“The discovery of a ‘secret child’ (L’Enfant secret, J’entends plus la guitare), the failed or successful suicide attempts (Les Hautes Solitudes; the short Rue Fontaine, 1984; Night Wind, 1999; Frontier of Dawn, 2007), May ’68 (at the core of Regular Lovers but repeatedly referenced in many others), electroshock therapy (L’Enfant secret, Frontier of Dawn), the inaugural infidelity of the female partner (Emergency Kisses; J’entends plus la guitare; The Birth of Love; Regular Lovers; A Burning Hot SummerJealousy, 2013; In the Shadow of Women), the birth of a child (J’entends plus la guitare, The Birth of Love, Frontier of Dawn, A Burning Hot Summer, Jealousy). It is the traumatic or joyful mark left by those events in the memory of the filmmaker that dictates their reappearance from film to film, as if the emotion associated with them compelled their depiction.” Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin take stock of Philippe Garrel’s 50-year career, a half century dedicated to minimalist staging of autobiographical tales that insist upon authenticity even as they eschew realism.

“He more than once filmed Jane giving birth, turned their arguments and lovemaking into cinematic subjects, embellished his footage of their life in rural Colorado with wild superimposed images drawn from Norse mythology, and—in the Eighties—made pained films about their separation and divorce. But the moment he turned his camera on his family they, too, became concentrations of light whose “qualities and varieties” he could study. The films he made of them shine with love and tenderness and at the same time suggest an odd disregard for the recipients of that love.” Another career five decades in length, and for large stretches as disquietingly autobiographical, was Stan Brakhage’s. Max Nelson limns the domestic tension that acted as source for several of the most rapturous images ever captured, painted, scratched, or pasted on to film; a source Brakhage let drop with appropriate humility when his second wife nixed his filming the family for his art. Via David Hudson.

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Blu-ray: ‘Rumble Fish’

 

Francis Ford Coppola described Rumble Fish (1983), his screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, as “an art film for teenagers.” He shot it right after making The Outsiders (1982), also adapted from a Hinton novel, but where that was a lush, operatic tale, Coppola made Rumble Fish in stylized black and white, like a teen noir seen through the eyes of a kid who has mythologized the idea of street gang chivalry to the point that he can’t see the reality through the idealization.

Criterion

Matt Dillon is teenage tough guy Rusty James, a good looking, recklessly charming high school kid in the shadow of his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), trying to live up to a reputation that his brother wants only to live down. He’s an aspiring juvenile delinquent with a boozer dad (Dennis Hopper) and a nice girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who attends Catholic School across town. Rusty James (always the two names, like a brand) is, of course, from the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial grit of a Tulsa that time left behind and this culture of bars and boozer and packs of kids who imagine themselves as real gangs is steeped in its own mythology, or rather Rusty is steeped in the mythology that no one else seems to revere.

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Documentary: Capturing the Human Experience of War

There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.

The Battle of Midway (1942)

American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.

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Hollywood Goes to War

When America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood was also drafted into the effort — not just to support the cause but also to beat the drums of patriotism and duty. America was going to war and with it, so did the entire country. The men enlisted, the women took jobs in the factories, families tightened their belts and pitched in on civil defense and scrap drives, and the studios were expected not just to reflect the new paradigm, but to set the tone.

It was a sudden, dramatic shift. Before the war, studios were wary of merely hinting at politics in its films, let alone being blatantly partisan. Germany was a major market for American movies and, disgust for Hitler’s European aggression and nationalistic bigotry aside, business was business. Only Warner Bros. defied Hitler, giving up the German market to publicly support the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 26

The journal Movie might only release one issue a year, but it always guarantees you plenty to chew on. This edition contains a dossier concerning opening scenes, but these close readings bore deeper into the mysteries and loveliness of the selections than some entertaining blogger rounding up and describing his favorite such, and how these entries into a movie’s world prepare us for the journey to come. Thus Nathaniel Dayo profitably contrasts the “spartan” establishing shot of London from John Irvin’s BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the Hollywood norm (and the feature remake) (“For non-British viewers (such as the author) encountering the series in syndication or on home video, however, that moment of instant recognition is much less likely to dawn, and in the absence of a captioning title a certain fog of indeterminacy will hang over the image.”); Pete Falconer unravels most of the cues for character and setting that Hawks sets down with the first shot of Rio Bravo (“The door we see is a mundane, everyday fixture, its colour a drab brown. It is not the type of door conventionally associated with the main entrances of western saloons, and Dude does not enter in a way associated with that type of door. His entrance is not emphatic or frontal—he seems instead to be creeping in through a side door”); Anthony Coman underscores the confrontational subversiveness of Ophuls’s seemingly “cream-cake” introduction to Lola Montès (“We begin in the rafters; we see the ropes from which the props dangle; we see the camera’s tracks. If the CinemaScope framing allows us the freedom to hunt for significance, Ophuls’ mise-en-scène makes significant the circus’—and even the film’s—construction”).

Also Christa Van Raalte on the disturbing juxtaposition of Zero Dark Thirty’s audio-only prologue of 9/11 calls and its opening scene of torture (“Whereas collapsing towers and falling bodies could invite us to take an outsider’s view of disaster-as-spectacle, these voices take us inside the experience, aligning us with the participants and inviting us to imagine the view from within”); Catherine Constable breaks down the abstract “birth” that opens Glazer’s Under the Skin (“The absence of scale means that the first two images of Under the Skin conjoin the cosmological—a new planet—with the individual—the emerging eye / I”); and Lola Breux admires the naked acknowledgement of authorship played out in the opening (and closing) credits of Bunny Lake Is Missing (“The identity which is revealed to us right at the start is Otto Preminger’s. It is hard to miss his name as it is the first element which the hand reveals, so his ‘appearance’ benefits from the initial impact of the unique design”). Via David Hudson. [.pdf warning]

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Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

Shout! Factory

The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.

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