Film Review: ‘Exhibition’

10 April, 2014 (07:42) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Viv Albertine in ‘Exhibition’

Form follows function in this modernist house on a quiet street in London. Stacked in clean, streamlined boxes, its floors are wrapped in glass. It is home to two artists, who work in different sections of the house and communicate through an intercom. We don’t have to watch long to intuit that the house is like their marriage: compartmentalized but comfortable, hiding its share of secrets despite the great views in every direction.

The home, a real place designed by architect James Melvin, is the primary location for this new film by British director Joanna Hogg.

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Videophiled: ‘The Hobbit’ meets Smaug, Claire Denis’ ‘Bastards’ and ‘A Touch of Sin’

8 April, 2014 (16:30) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Hobbit2BDThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line, Blu-ray 3D Combo, Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – “What have we done?” asks hardy hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in the final seconds of the second film in the Hobbit trilogy. If by “we” he means Peter Jackson and company, then “we” have reimagined J.R.R. Tolkein’s storybook odyssey of a modest hobbit finding the courage and cleverness to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their kingdom from a usurper as a sweeping spectacle that transforms the delightful adventure fantasy into a blood and thunder epic. Suddenly it’s no longer a lively fantasy adventure but the prequel to Lord of the Rings with new stories and characters woven through it. The seeds of Sauron’s rise now sprout in the margins of the story, every battle seems to be a personal grudge match, and Bilbo is reduced to a supporting character in what is supposed his story. It’s a mistake as far as I’m concerned but at least it works better in this film than it did in the first chapter, ironically enough in part because of a new character who is nowhere to be found in any of Tolkein’s fictions: elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who brings some much-needed passion to a film filled with characters reduced to stock types.

The dragon Smaug, who makes his entrance late in the film, is a beautiful creation, slithering through his scenes both physically and verbally (thanks to silky voicing by Benedict Cumberbatch), but Jackson can’t resist turning the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug into yet another theme-park ride of a spectacle. To give credit where it is due, Jackson is very good at this sort of thing—the barrel-ride escape from the elves is really quite fun if utterly unnecessary—and there are audiences who want just that. I’d prefer Jackson simply tell a story.

It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions feature the behind-the-scene documentary Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set, the featurettes “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2,” “Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2? and “Music Scoring,” and “Live Event: In the Cutting Room,” a recording of the March 2013 Q&A and studio tour hosted by Jackson and streamed live in the web.

BastardsBastards (IFC, DVD, Digital HD) may be the bleakest drama yet from Claire Denis, a filmmaker with her share of dark portraits. Vincent Lindon is a cargo ship captain who returns home after decades for reasons that don’t become clear until much later. His sister is mess and his niece (her daughter) in the hospital, the victim of terrible sexual abuse. Their story comes together slowly in fractured flashbacks as we struggle to understand how everyone is connected, including the woman next door (Chiara Mastroianni), divorced from a powerful businessman with some shady business. What comes together most clearly is the rot in the family line and reason Kindon left it all behind. In some ways it’s like a warped version of Chinatown with an even more black-hearted backstory and insidious ending. This is a tough one, but it’s worth the investment. The score by Tindersticks adds a haunting atmosphere to the journey. French with English subtitles.

TouchSinJia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) takes four true stories of life in the modern China economy and weaves them into an unsettling portrait of the country, where the runaway growth takes its toll on the citizens racing to simply survive. Jia isn’t known for a sense of humor and this film, with its stories cleverly woven together in subtle ways, has a mercenary edge to it—there’s murder, predation, and bureaucratic indifference to the ordeals of citizens just trying to get by—but there’s a dark humor to its satire as well. Welcome to the modern economy where everything is for sale and human capital is just another commodity. Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.

More New Releases at Cinephiled

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DVD: ‘I Am Divine’

7 April, 2014 (15:02) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Divine is, of course, the name of the most famous (or perhaps more accurately infamous) drag queen of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subtitle to Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine–”The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World”–comes right out of Divine’s stage show introduction. But the title is also a commentary on the appropriation of Divine, not as an identity but as a character created by Glenn Milstead, the overweight, gay Baltimore outsider who worked in a beauty shop and found his place with a group of self-described freaks (John Waters, Mink Stole, David Lochary and others) who reveled in ridiculing the culture around them. When Waters started making movies with his friends, Glenn put on a dress, caked his face with make-up, and delivered an outsized, campy performance that channeled Hollywood melodrama, vamping stage diva, and B-movie horror. Waters bestowed the name Divine on Glenn for the credits of their first film together, Roman Candles, and he embraced it with a mad, wild-eyed passion.

I Am Divine opens with the premiere of the original 1988 Hairspray, the film that brought Divine out of cult circles and into suburban theaters and mainstream culture. Glenn had spent years trying to break through as an actor apart from the Divine person and with glowing reviews of Hairspray, as well as a role in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (not as Divine but as Glenn Milstead, dressed in a suit and playing a mob boss) and an upcoming role on the TV sitcom Married… With Children, he was poised to finally do just that. He died of a heart attack, brought on by obesity and poor health, the night before his first day of shooting on the sitcom.

I Am Divine is the story of both Divine, the outrageous gargoyle of a glamour queen who both caricatured and embraced drag culture, and of Harris Glenn Milstead, the shy, generous man who was kicked out of the house by his parents when he came out of the closet to them.

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Blu-ray: Lon Chaney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

6 April, 2014 (07:38) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

Lon Chaney was the most unlikely of Hollywood superstar actors. Talented and ambitious, he fearlessly took on roles of tortured victims, twisted villains, and misshapen outcasts, parts that he brought to life with a mix of elaborate make-up, physically demanding incarnations, and emotionally intense performances. In some ways, you could see him as the De Niro of the silent era, sinking himself into each role so deeply he loses himself in it, at least as far as the viewer in concerned. In an industry that celebrates physical beauty and charisma, Chaney won over audiences by playing characters that looked or acted like monster while communicating their inner drives and torments with his eyes and his face and his body language. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 was his first major production, a lavish period drama based on a classic novel and created at a cost of over $1 million by Universal, at the time a second-tier studio with ambitions to compete with the majors in the blockbuster realm. It made him one of Hollywood’s biggest screen stars.

This adaptation largely hews to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney plays Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen, deaf and half blind bell-ringer at Notre Dame, nominally raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.

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Blu-ray: ‘Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1′

5 April, 2014 (07:44) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

If you’re arriving late to class, here’s the recap: director / producer / modern B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman directed the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a flamboyantly grotesque parody of high school movies and radioactive mutant horror, in 1986. The premise: a high school in Tromaville, the most toxic city in America, is located right next to a nuclear power plant and the students gets contaminated when a dealer sells drugs irradiated from the plant. It spawned two sequels (produced and co-written but not directed by Kaufman), the last one released in 1994. Twenty years later, Kaufman revives the franchise with a new micro-budget epic so sprawling that it was split into two parts (ostensibly upon the recommendation of Quentin Tarantino, a la Kill Bill). Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 was shown at film festivals and played limited runs and special midnight screenings across the country before landing on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms, which is still the primary mode of distribution for Troma’s cult movies.

In Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, the old nuclear plant and its giant cooling towers (which loomed over the old high school thanks to cheap optical effects) have been bulldozed under (that’s what passes for environmental clean-up in the Tromaverse) but a new business has sprung up in its place. As guest narrator Stan Lee explains over the opening montage of clips from the earlier trilogy, “Tromorganic Foodstuffs, Inc, was built right over the old Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant. What could go wrong?”

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of April 4

4 April, 2014 (11:10) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Betty Balfour in the recently rediscovered ‘Love, Life and Laughter’

With so many silent film rediscoveries of late stemming from the antipodal regions of New Zealand and Argentina, it’s almost charmingly old-fashioned to have a treasure pop up in the Netherlands. Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmusem announced last week they’d uncovered a number of comedy and documentary shorts from America, including Mickey Rooney’s first starring role and an exploration up Mt. Hood. Though the article doesn’t make this very clear, many of these weren’t lost, merely available in substandard editions now upgraded considerably. But one film they have returned to the public after decades gone missing is Love, Life and Laughter, selected by the BFI in 2010 as one of British cinema’s “most wanted” lost masterpieces, starring Betty Balfour and now the second complete film available by director George Pearson. One looks forward to once again completely rewriting the early history of cinema. Via Silent London.

For a Berlin tourism site, Brendan Nash traces the many places in the city that young Marlene Dietrich called home, constantly uprooted against her volition by economic strife and family tragedy. Till the night of The Blue Angel’s premiere, whereupon she thanked the audience, grabbed a train out of town, and made a break for Hollywood. Via David Hudson.

Speaking of pricey real estate, Nancie Clare gives a brief overview of how Beverly Hills went from a busted oil deal to the home of the stars, nicely accompanied by some celebrity photos.

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Film Review: ‘Anita: Speaking Truth to Power’

4 April, 2014 (08:42) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Anita Hill

In October 1991 the Oklahoma law-school professor Anita Hill went before a Senate hearing (and TV cameras) to give testimony in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oh, you remember this? The drama of the moment is difficult to forget. Hill was alleging that while working as an assistant to Thomas years earlier, he had offered unwanted dating inquiries, made inappropriate remarks about anatomy, and talked about pornography. The spectacle was a watershed moment in the public understanding of sexual harassment, and a true battle in the gender wars. From Thomas’s perspective, it was a “high-tech lynching,” to use the memorable phrase he unleashed when called to testify after Hill’s session.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: ‘The Missing Picture’

4 April, 2014 (08:37) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘The Missing Picture’

In 1975, at age 13, filmmaker Rithy Panh’s world turned into a complete nightmare. As a child in Phnom Penh, he saw his family expelled from their urban environment and sent to the countryside of Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge had begun its ruthless process of re-educating the population according to the communist ideology of the regime’s “brother number one,” Pol Pot. The population starved as the agrarian experiment failed, and executions removed the nonbelievers in the cause.

Rithy Panh survived, but his family did not. His film, The Missing Picture, an Oscar nominee this year in the foreign-language category, is an attempt to recall those years through a personal lens (he has previously made straightforward documentaries on the subject of the Khmer Rouge).

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Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

3 April, 2014 (10:28) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Scarlett Johansson

The recent spate of superhero movies all share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated, and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive . . . fistfight. You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. But it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics—as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.

The same outline prevails in the second top-lining film for its old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that, unlike 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting The Avengers, Winter Soldier is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext, and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.

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Film Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol. II’

3 April, 2014 (10:23) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jaimie Bell

Seeing Nymphomaniac Vol. II a couple of weeks after Vol. I is more than just a case of cinema interruptus. It proves how much the opus needs to be seen as a single picture, preferably in one go. So intriguing in its first couple of hours, Nymphomaniac scrambles to get back into gear as Vol. II resumes the story; more nagging still is the feeling that while the material darkens, it doesn’t necessarily deepen.

We return to the room where Joe, a no-longer-young sex addict—though she prefers the term nymphomaniac—is recounting her life story to the intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård).

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Videodrone Classic: ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’

3 April, 2014 (08:38) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah | By: Sean Axmaker

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), one of Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorites of his films (and the rare Peckinpah film not to get reworked by the studio), opens on an idyllic river scene with a pregnant girl soaking her feet in the lazy current with a beatific smile on her face. In his great westerns, the river scenes are the brief escapes from violent lives in his character, reprieves in the middle of the drama before they march back out to meet their fates. This comes before the story even begins and once the spell is broken by the violence of a brutal father, a Mexican crime lord played by Peckinpah regular Emilio Fernández, and a $1 million bounty placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the unborn child, there is little peace or paradise to be found.

Warren Oates stars as Benny, a grubby lounge pianist playing for tourists in a Mexican dive when a couple of American hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) saunter in looking for information on “an old friend.” Benny thinks he’s hit the jackpot—a whopping $10,00 for giving them proof that Alfredo Garcia is dead (yes, they want his head)—but it costs him everything that matters and the tawdry treasure hunt turns into a revenge drama.

It plays like a pulp noir thriller by way of a road movie of the damned, marinated in mescal and left to rot in the desert sun. Benny’s not that smart or savvy but Peckinpah clearly loves this small-timer with his wrinkled white linen suit and clip-on tie and bad cantina sing-along songs. He may be a loser but he truly loves his philandering girl Elita (Isela Vega) and he develops more backbone with every stage of the odyssey. When he’s double crossed, he literally drags himself out of a shallow grave and returns with vengeance on his mind, fueled by rage, tequila, and a perverse loyalty to the rotting head he’s come to talk to like a father confessor. The film opened to scathing, outraged reviews (one notable exception was Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece”) but has since been embraced as a perverse masterpiece, the ultimate cult film in the career of a defiantly confrontational director.

Twilight Time gives the Blu-ray debut of this film more original supplements than any previous release from the label. The 55-minute documentary Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film is a new production from German filmmaker and Peckinpah fan Mike Siegel featuring a wealth of interviews with Peckinpah actors and collaborators. A new commentary track by Peckinpah historian and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman with Alfred Garcia co-writer and executive producer Gordon T. Dawson is paired with a track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman previously recorded for the film’s DVD debut. There’s a new 25-minute video interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, who was on the set of Alfredo Garcia, and a gallery of stills and promotional art, plus Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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Videophiled Essential: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’

2 April, 2014 (09:04) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.

Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.

Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Knights of Badassdom’

1 April, 2014 (08:44) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Knights of Badassdom (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD), a modest little horror comedy set in the fantasy gaming LARP (that’s Live Action Role Playing) culture, has a good time sending up its obsessive nerds and cosplay veterans gathered for a weekend championship of stage combat and mock-Shakespearean patter. Then it unleashes a succubus from hell on them. Actually it’s Steve Zahn’s Eric, a mage armed with a really cool ancient tome he bought off Ebay, who summoned up the demon during gameplay. It was an honest mistake but the body count is real enough, especially when his Hail Mary pass of a reversal incantation merely turns the hot succubus into a scaly demon who wades through the would-be warriors like a kid stomping through his toy soldiers.

The producers line up a low-budget cast with high genre cred and they too seem to have a good time: Ryan Kwanten (the spacey Jason of True Blood) as the aspiring black-metal star reluctantly dragged along by his buddies, Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as the stoner who preps by downing a bag of shrooms, and Summer Glau (Firefly) as the warrior babe all too used to the geek boys hitting on her. Jimmi Simpson and Danny Pudi (Community) are well cast in supporting roles. They don’t play caricatures of gaming obsessives so much as overly enthusiastic fans carried away with the theatrics of it all. The film was reportedly recut without the participation of director Joe Lynch and the result looks a little like something tamed down for a general audience, but the attitude and energy keep it going through the familiar rhythms of the story. And refreshingly for an R-rated comedy, this is geek-girl friendly, with Glau shrugging off the advances and outbattling everyone with hearty high spirits and wit. No gratuitous nudity here but plenty of over-the-top stage gore, the kind of goopy excess that makes demons-versus-mortals violence less rather than more realistic.

The most substantial supplement is the Comic Con panel with director Joe Lynch and six stars of the film (all the major cast members apart from Zahn). There’s a seven-minute interview with Lynch and a handful of brief cast interviews and featurettes, all less than two minutes apiece.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

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DVD: ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’

31 March, 2014 (15:59) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The title of the The Broken Circle Breakdown, a major hit in its native Belgium and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in the U.S., is a riff on the American country spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is the story of a great love and a devastating loss, and it indeed confronts a breakdown, both figurative and literal, in the family circle. The song opens the film, performed by a bluegrass band in Belgium fronted by Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a one-time punk rocker who fell in love with American roots music. He learned to play the banjo because it’s the closest instrument to the wail of the rock guitar. At least that’s how he explains it to Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who has turned her own body into a canvas for her work, on their first date.

That first date comes later in the film. Our introduction to Didier and Elise is in 2006 as they await results from a test that their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), named for Maybelle Carter of course, is undergoing. They are trying to hold it together to give their little girl all the strength and optimism they can muster. As this present-day drama unfolds, we slip back seven years to the early, heady days of their romance. It’s practically love at first sight and they form an instant connection; the way the flashbacks jump through their life together, it looks like she moves in the next day. Their personal harmony is picked up in the band, where she joins the ensemble in duets with Didier, then as a lead singer and guitar player. His stunned, defensive reaction to the news that she’s pregnant is the only sour note of their love song and he quickly recovers by starting a verse.

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Blu-ray: ‘Dead Kids’ (aka ‘Strange Behavior’)

31 March, 2014 (06:57) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.

Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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