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0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Showering praise on April, 20 October 2003

What got me into the theater for this one was seeing the trailer. I initially had no idea the lead character was played by Katie Holmes. I have not seen much of her and what I've seen I haven't much liked, including the ridiculous "Dawson's Creek," the success of which positively amazed me.

"Pieces of April" is a low budget indie shot on digital video. Part farce, part made-for-TV holiday movie on how a disfunctional family comes together, this picture works well, despite a rather unbelievable ending. But its success is that you want to believe in the ending, so you do. If only real life were so simple that people who have been at war for years could solve their problems with a good turkey stuffing.

Hats off to writer/director Peter Hedges who did very good job with an obviously limited budget. He also milked about all you can get from a very compact storyline which centers around a formerly drugged out punk girl who decides to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family because her mother is dying of cancer.

Full marks to Patricia Clarkson who is good as the mother and Oliver Platt, good, but a little miscast as the father. But this is Katie Holmes movie and she got the ball and ran with it.

While the whole premise might not hold up well under heavy scrutiny, Holmes turns in an excellent performance as the punk daughter facing the very middle class anxiety of having the whole family over for a holiday meal and not having a clue as to how to prepare it.

And while this picture may also be a little too much into "diversity" with good black people and good Asian people and not really many good white folk (all the real villains are white, from Katie's sister to her drug dealing ex-boyfriend), it does make a rather interesting statement. Maybe the people you gather around you should be the people who treat you well. Blood ties are not always the ones that bind.

Anyway, Holmes shines and I will now look forward to her next film with interest. Keep up playing in good indies, Katie, you have a real knack for it.

Dopamine (2003)
4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A failed chemistry experiment, 12 October 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a nice, well intentioned indie film, the kind that I like to support because it tries to examine the lives of real people, and not the cardboard cut outs Hollywood usually fashions its films around.

Unfortunately, Mark Decena's "Dopamine" falls victim to many of the same cliches and off-the-shelf plot devices found in countless main stream Hollywood films.

The plot has a couple of computer whiz types visiting a San Francisco bar where their paths cross with a girl artist/pre school teacher. The hero, Rand, and the girl, Sara, are immediately attracted to one another, but Rand is too laid back and too cautious to make his move and so his cocky, arrogant buddy Winston (Winston?) winds up going home with the girl for a one night stand. It ends badly and Winston thinks that's the end of it.

From there we find out all about the boys, who are in the middle of developing a computer generated pet, a sort of chia pet in cyberspace that you don't even get to water. But some Japanese businessmen are hot for the idea and have been bankrolling them for the past three years.

The plot thickens when they wind up having to give it a test run in a pre-school class where guess who just happens to be one of the teachers? Sara's skeptical about the idea, but she likes Rand and the two of them start dating.

One can't go too much farther without giving away the plot. But this is where this picture falls down. First because, unlike a lot of current American films that have a plot, but no subplot, this picture is almost equally divided between the Sara and Rand romance and the development of this animated Tweedy bird. It's too much balance. It needed far less Tweedy bird and more human characterization. But the confusion doesn't stop there, for an even silly subplot is the idea that human emotions are really sparked by chemical changes or excretions, thus the title of the film. So occasionally, as if this somehow is funny, we zoom inside people's bodies for a look at their nerve endings excreting the proper chemical at the proper time.

Once would have been cute. More than once was not and never did it come off as entertaining.

Anyway, Sara and Rand wind up facing some relationship roadblocks and that's where this really sort of sags. Rand, it turns out, is building Tweedy bird, a pet that will never leave you, because he has abandonment issues. Sara is occasionally promiscuous because -- well I can't tell you without a spoiler alert. But I shouldn't have to. Sara has a deep dark secret, but the thing is, its the same secret that has propelled every day time soap opera and Lifetime made-for-TV movie for the past 30 years.

Beyond the script, however, the film goes pretty well. The direction is fine and the photography adequate for a low budget indie, although a little too artsy at times, especially on its transition scenes, some of which seem rather unnecessary.

The acting is uniformly good, although the hero, played by John Livingston, a sort of Ben Affleck look alike, is a little too laid back to be really believable.

But high marks go to Sabrina Lloyd as Sara. She rings about everything you could ring out of the role. She is really very believable when finally fessing up about her dark secret, making you want to comfort her, even as you want to strangle the script writers for this over used plot twist.

Lloyd, although perhaps lacking the stunning good looks for mainstream stardom, could be the next Indie queen. Nice piece of work on her part.

Overall, though, the picture gets a low 7 out of 10.

Underworld (2003)
Underworld is the undeveloped world., 7 October 2003

This is an idea whose time hadn't yet come and quite possibly, never will. It seems to be a sort of blending of "West Side Story," various Hong Kong kung fu movies and the old Universal horror classics of the thirties and forties. But it doesn't jell into anything at all.

The film is apparently set in modern times and centers around a blood feud between vampires and werewolves, or lychin as they are called here. Not much point in saying more, because there really isn't more, despite what could have been an interesting idea. Instead, the storyline just seems to be one endless set up for an endless string of chases through dark, narrow tunnels or dark narrow streets. But the odd thing is that both clans seem to rely on good old fashioned gunfire rather than sucking blood or ripping each others throats out, making the fact that they are supernatural beings almost irrelevant.

It's as if the filmmakers wanted to make a horror movie, but kind of wanted a martial arts movie, too, and yet, just to hedge their bets, decided to make it a gang movie from the hood. So they wound up with nothing, just a sort of low budget Matrix that neither frightens you nor makes you sit up in awe over the special effects.

If the special effects from martial arts films aren't there and the old fashion thrills and chills we expect from vampire movies aren't there, what is there? The characterizations you might think would spring from some writer's mind if he were going to turn vampires into a centuries old clan complete with mansions and intrigues and waring factions within factions? Nope. Again, they sort of tried, but not very hard and came away with next to nothing, no characterizations, no interesting sets or costumes or customs.

Lastly, one has to look at the acting. Scott Speedman, late of "Felicity," plays a human caught in the middle of this horror show ripped from Universal studios one sheets of the thirties. And since the movie is painfully underwritten, he is given almost nothing to do, something that only emphasizes his rather dower personality.

The real shame, though, is Kate Beckinsale. This was a vehicle for her and perhaps designed to make her into some kind of rival for Angelina Jolie, who rose above "Lara Croft" making it into at least a little something. But Beckinsale complete misfires here, just as she did in "Pearl Harbor." She's proved before she can handle dramatic material and recently was quite good in "Laurel Canyon." And perhaps her best performance to date in an American film was in "Last Days of Disco." But here she spends an entire movie wearing the exact same expression, something of a cross between annoyed and perplexed, as if she's trying to figure out how she got herself into such a stinker.

Not a good effort from Kate, or the people who put this one together.

Don't bother.

The best trip of the summer, 22 September 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This has been a good summer for intelligent, thought provoking films like the enigmatic "Swimming Pool," the disturbing "Dirty, Pretty Things" and the mystical "Whale Rider."

But Sofia Coppola has come along with what could be the best of them all in "Lost in Translation."

This may be the best "fish out of water" film to hit the screen in a long time. It may be the best travelogue of a big city since "Roman Holiday." And it may be the best May/December romance since Woody Allen's "Manhattan." And Like "Manhattan." this is a film which succeeds on a number of levels, especially visually. In fact, cinematographer Lance Acord does the best job of romanticizing a city since Gordon Willis turned New York into a black and white Ansel Adams show set to Gershwin in "Manhattan."

But viewers who do not want a travelogue should not be put off, either. Coppola stays away from the tourist scenes you might expect to find when a film is about two people frolicking in a foreign land. Instead, she shows Tokyo as a town that is erupting with nightlife, a city that seems made for after hours adventures.

Scenes of video arcades and kareoke bars seem to be ripped right out of a William Gibson novel.The final shots of Tokyo at night are breathtaking.

Beyond the pretty pictures, though, is a story about a middle aged guy and a girl young enough to be his daughter who, due to fate and do to their own restlessness, find themselves thrown together in a Tokyo hotel with lots of time and temptation on their hands.

Bill Murray and Scarlott Johansson both do wonderful jobs of portraying people suffering from the kind of boredom we used to find in stories about the English upper class. Both are unhappily married, although her reasons are more obscure than his, both are well off, both are tempted to find some excitement.

Without getting into spoiler territory, this picture does bog down a little at midpoint. And part of the problem is the problem facing the two protagonists. Neither can get up the energy to do something drastic, because in reality, neither really has to. There is no burning incentive to jump ship for either of them. Both would like something to strike their fancy, yet neither may be willing to risk all they have without a better reason for doing so.

In fact, this picture is in many ways about what used to be called in the 1930s and 40s a shipboard romance. Two people are trapped for five days on an oceanliner crossing the Atlantic and they may, or may not, act on their attraction to one another. But even if they do, everything goes back to normal when the gangplank is lowered at their destination and they go their separate ways. They might meet years later at a cocktail party and may wink or may not. Hell, they might not even remember.

Luckily for us, Coppola has written a pretty good third act to this story and the action picks up in the end, although the ending is a little too enigmatic for some tastes.

But then, that's not always bad.

Maybe the closest thing to this film since Woody Allen's "Manhattan"(1979) was the late Claude Sautet's remarkable 1995 film "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud," which featured a fascinating May/December love story between Michel Serrault and the amazingly beautiful Emmanuelle Beart. Beart, in an interview, said the story was about two lonely people who just needed somebody to talk to at a juncture in their lives.

True enough and perhaps our hearts go out to the lonely so willingly, that we want them to consummate their relationship just so they, and we, won't be lonely any longer. That's the feel Coppola left me with through her film.

But "Nelly" took the "ships passing in the night" idea to a different level by having the characters there let the chance slip away. And the looks on both their faces as they go their separate ways are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

One doesn't quite get that feeling in "Translation," because you get the feeling the full story has not yet been written.

Do see this film. I intend to see it again and as soon as possible.

Sunrise (1927)
102 out of 119 people found the following review useful:
Simply the best, 22 July 2003

While some film critics disagreed in the late fifties, giving the nod to Murnau's equally brilliant "Last Laugh," this in my view is the crowning achievement of the German genius. Many polls rank it as the greatest silent film ever made and many rank it very high on the all time list of great movies.

The plot is melodramatic, the acting in places heavy handed, and the action seemingly non-existent, at least in the eyes of the "Terminator 3" generation,yet "Sunrise" is so captivating a film that it can be watched over and over again and deliver the same punch every time. In fact, like the other greats,including "Citizen Kane," you can probably get something new out of "Sunrise" every time you watch it, no matter how many times you watch.

Murnau takes barren sets and dark, hallow rooms and turns them into treasure troves of lighting and nuance. He creates something as simple as a railway depot or a big traffic intersection and makes it a story all by itself.

"Sunrise" stands today as one of the most visually fascinating films ever made. Murnau's cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, got an Oscar for their work and surely deserved it. Janet Gaynor won the Best Actress award for her body of work that also included "Seventh Heaven" and also richly deserved the prize. Her face expresses her inner emotions so perfectly that some of her scenes are achingly beautiful.

And the film itself received an academy award for "Most unique and artistic production," an award never given out again, maybe because no picture could live up to the standard set by "Sunrise."

The new DVD version being marketed on the quiet by Fox is marvelous, with a wonderfully restored print that seems just as bright today as it must have in late 1927 when the film was released. The DVD includes an interesting commentary option by cinematographer John Baily and no film is better suited for this, since it tells its story brilliantly with pictures alone, so the commentary option is not a distraction.

One of the great tragedies of the cinema in my view is that few people alive today have seen "Sunrise." They have no idea what they are missing.

This one ranks among the five best films ever made.

19 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
Long before tigers crouched and dragons hid..., 7 June 2003

...Douglas Fairbanks brought grace and poetry to physical action on the movie screen. Fairbanks essentially invented the action/adventure movie genre, known in his day as swashbucklers.

"Thief of Bagdad" was made in 1924 when Fairbanks was half way through the heyday of that part of his career. He already had "Zorro" "The Three Musketeers" and "Robin Hood" behind him. "Thief" was something of a departure, however, for it depended less on Fairbanks ability to dance his way though physical stunts than it did on the Arabian Nights tableau it presented on the screen. And frankly, nothing like it has every been done since. Only Griffth's "Intolerance" created the same kind of feel, and it was gritty and warlike, where as "Thief" was a sort of wondrous dream about what it would be like to live by your wits, go off and slay dragons and eventually, win the hand of a princess by saving her father's kingdom.

Fairbanks was over 40 when he made this film and yet seems so perfectly suited for it that we forget his age. He is the embodiment of the dashing hero.

But what almost overshadows him are the sets themselves. Designed by William Cameron Menzies, they are beyond spectacular. Almost every frame of this film is a work of art and of course, the amazing thing is, this was not done through computer animation. So skillful are the designs and the camerawork, that it is almost impossible to tell where the sets stop and the matt paintings begin.

Credit for all this must also go to Fairbanks,who wrote the script and produced the film. Raoul Walsh's direction is also great, although the film is a little long in some spots and would be aided by some skillful editing.

Fairbanks acting style seems today very much of the silent era, yet at the same time, there is always the feel of joyous celebration to it. He was always something of the happy rogue or perhaps, a guy who realized he was getting to make a living by playing in the world's most wonderful sandbox. He was blessed with good fortune and he knew it.

Of the others, Julanne Johnston, who plays the princess, probably comes off the worst of the main characters. She is beautiful,but comes off as little more than window dressing. But cudos to the incredible Anna May Wong who plays the treacherous Mongol slave girl. Wong's great beauty and strong screen presence allow her to steal almost every scene she is in. That Wong never got the chance to play many lead roles is one of the great tragedies of Hollywood history.

32 out of 39 people found the following review useful:
A curiosity at best, 2 June 2003

This film is today memorable only for those interested in the struggles the studios went through during the conversion to sound, and those interested in the fortunes of two of Hollywood's most fascinating characters, William Powell, and Louise Brooks.

Powell is cast as Philo Vance and plays him in a straight, deadpan manner. It's interesting because he has almost none of the charm and sophistication that he would bring just a few years later to the Nick Charles character that would become such a major hit.

On the other hand, this is the film that sunk the Hollywood career of Louise Brooks. She had just completed the silent version of this film when her Paramount contract came up for renewal. She was owned a $250 bump in salary, which would have boosted her all the way to $1,000 a week. But B.P. Schulberg refused to honor the deal, saying he didn't know how she would record. Of course, Brooks walked out on the film, went to Europe and made film history, although it would be 30 years before anyone realized it. But eventually, the restored version of "Pandora's Box" would turn her into a screen legend and perhaps, the greatest femme fatale in movie history. But the film pretty much flopped at the time, mostly because it was carved up by the censors.

Meanwhile, Paramount decided to do some reshoots to get some sound into "Canary", but could not lure Brooks back to Hollywood for love or money. So Margaret Livingston was brought in and dubbed Brooks' voice, unfortunately using a Brooklyn accent that sounded nothing at all like Brooks. (For a real example of her voice, check out "Windy Riley Goes Hollywood," a terrible 1929 short that was actually directed by Fatty Arbuckle under an assumed name. She has a low, sexy voice, despite Paramount's contention that she "didn't record." It's now available on DVD as added material for Brooks' other German triumph, "Diary of a Lost Girl," directed by G.W.Pabst.)

At any rate, Canary is slow moving and dull to the extreme. After Brooks' character is knocked off, the film goes straight downhill and is almost impossible to watch. But the first part is fascinating, if only because Brooks is so damned beautiful that she takes your breath away.

A re tread with a few miles left on it, 1 June 2003

I went to see "The Italian Job" on the recommendations of people I know. I no longer consider these people to be my friends.

This film stars Charlize Theron and three Mini-Coopers. Seth Green is good in a supporting role. Donald Sutherland is fine in a cameo. Also in the cast is Edward Norton, who delivers an undistinguished performance as the bad guy, and Mark Walberg. He is nominally the star, or at least, he gets top billing. He plays the head of the heist mob. Unfortunately for Mr. Walberg, every one of the members of his mob has a life and a personality, except him. His character is so underwritten that it would take a James Cagney or a Cary Grant to bring it to life. Not being blessed with their personalities, Mr. Walberg simply soldiers on along reciting his lines competently, but having virtually no impact on the screen. Had he dropped out half way through the picture, you would not have missed him. But again, he was given precious little to work with.

The story is a remake of a 1969 Michael Caine film about a complex heist in Venus, Italy, and after the crooks have their booty stolen from them, and even more complex heist in Los Angeles to get the swag back. Not much more needs to be said. We have all seen it before. The whole film is in reality one long build up to another big car chase, this one involving the Mini-Coopers and taking place in the tunnels of the LA subway system, which we are informed is after all, under utilized.

Forget that not a single one of the male characters is in any way believable. They really don't matter. This is a movie for people who want to kill a couple of hours and nothing more. Actually, Miss Theron's personalty throughout most of the film is probably the strongest of the lot and she does a pretty good job with her role.

She's worth seeing. So are the Minis. Are they worth $8.50 even at matinee prices?

Not really. Well, maybe Charlize is. I can see the Minis at a showroom any time I want.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Interesting look at interesting people, 9 March 2003

Lisa Cholodenko's first film, 1998's "High Art," was a fascinating look at ambition and what some people will do to satisfy their need to get to the top. That made it a highly relevant film, especially for Americans.

This second feature is no where as powerful as her debut film and doesn't seem to say nearly as much, except maybe that even orderly lifes can encounter bumps along the way, and that the disorderly, the irresponsible and the drug addicted have morals, too, or at least, there are lines even they won't cross.

The film tells the tale of a young doctor who flies to LA with his fiancee to begin a residency in a hospital there. They intend to stay at his mother's Laurel Canyon home, only to discover that Mom, who is supposed to be in Malibu, is using the house and its home recording studio to produce a record for a rock band. Mom, it seems, is a highly successful record producer with a string of lovers both male and female that would apparently put Mick Jagger to shame. And like the Mick, she's also rarely without some controlled substance in hand.

Mom and her-son-the-doctor only tolerate each other and from the moment he and his girlfriend move in, doc is on the lookout for other digs. The girlfriend, a slightly up tight Ph.d. candidate working on her thesis, surprisingly enough immediately fits in with Mom and her rock band friends. She finds herself lured to the recording studio a lot more often than she is lured to her laptop to write about the mating habits of the fruit fly. Meanwhile, her boy friend finds himself attracted to a sexy second year intern who virtually throws herself at him.

That's essentially the story, and it is a very well acted and well directed one. Frances McDormand is very good as the mom. Christian Bale is Ok, although nothing special, as her son. Kate Beckinsale is excellent(and marvelous to look at) as the girlfriend and Allesandro Nivola is very good as the leader of the band.

So what are my gripes about this film? The big one is that it is a character study and nothing more, but unfortunately, its thin in the character building department. This film runs just 101 minutes and when it ended, I was quite surprised that it was over. That gave me the feeling that it suffered from a thin budget and that the director may have rung everything she could out of the bucks she had to work with. That's too bad, because another 10 to 15 minutes could have made all the difference in the world with this movie, lifting it from a good film to a very good film.

I just never quite got what the doc's gripe was with his mom, since she'd apparently nurtured him enough to get him through Harvard medical school, something most "abandoned kids" don't really accomplish. I also never got a clear picture of what Mom was after in life, save another hit record and a few more years of good sex with her current squeeze. Actually, maybe that was all that was on her mind, but she should have had some bigger goals to up the stakes a little.

The film's strength was that it was populated by people we don't meet everyday, from McDormand's quiet lioness of a mom, to Nivola's hedonistic, yet highly intelligent young rock singer. Even Beckinsale's character, a somewhat repressed intellectual who finds herself tempted to try a little hedonism herself, seemed different and intriguing.

But I needed a lot more back story or front story or something, because in the end, the infidelity that was supposed to be the big risk in this picture, really came off as a chance for nothing more than a little voyerism on the audience's part. I never really knew if Bale and Beckinsale were right for each other in the first place, so it never really mattered to me if one or the other of them strayed, or even moved on to other partners.

In the end, the story sort of sinks because of that, but survives anyway on the strength of the acting of McDormand, Beckinsale and Nivola, with Bale coming in a distant fourth in my view. Anyway, I give it a qualified thumbs up and hope Lisa Cholodenko can find a bigger budget to work with next time around.

33 out of 48 people found the following review useful:
A puzzling film, 22 February 2003

The puzzle is, why did this film go directly to video and why isn't it a better film?

Fineline apparently relegated this to the video bins because of a crowded release schedule, but more likely because it had just one American star in it, Jessica Alba, and her TV series, "Dark Angel," had been canceled, meaning she no longer brought any "heat" to the project.

That's a shame, because this film is light years better than most direct to video releases.

While the plot is quite complicated, it is basically about a young Englishman, played by Hugh Dancey, who goes out to Sawawak (Borneo) in the mid-thirties to follow in his father's footsteps and bring the benefits of a good English education to the natives and headhunters of the region.

He needs to pick up the language, though, and thus is assigned a "sleeping dictionary" a fetching young local woman who will teach him the native lingo, while giving him an education in bed at the same time. While that may sound as contrived a plot as you could find, it is probably grounded in fact, and certainly grounded in solid, British upper class hypocrisy of that day, which, taking into account the fact that he'll be there for three years, sees no reason why he can't avail himself of the local talent to satisfy his sexual needs. In fact, when he initially rejects the beautiful Jessica Alba, they offer him a young man, he being the product of British boys schools and all that.

After a very brief period of conflict, Dancey and Alba fall head over heels for each other, decide they want to marry, and find themselves in hot water from that point on. The film goes on to rightfully bash British upper class racial prejudice, but never quite deals with the key issue facing Dancey's character. Does he ever catch on that the education he wanted to bring to the natives is the same education that says, one Englishman is worth a thousand natives?

Anyway, the film, written and directed by Guy Jenkin, is fairly well scripted, well directed and absolutely beautifully shot. Word is, it cost just $15 million, but it has the look of a much more expensive picture, definitely not some cut rate direct to video thriller. This is not some prison women in cages film shot in the Philippines.

There are some good characterizations here. Bob Hoskins starts out very strong as the cynical governor of this province, but then is very under utilized. Brenda Blethyn is fantasic as Hoskins wife, a manipulative upper class snob who is the real villain of the story.

But there are script problems here. Dancey and Alba fall in love far too quickly, skipping over a lot of character build up which would have made us care for them a lot more than we wind up doing. There is sympathy for them, though, because of the obvious class and racial biases in the British empire. But you get the feeling there are a lot of missed opportunities here.

Perhaps the biggest flaw the film has are its two stars, though. Dancey,pretty much unknown in America, seems only adequate to me. He brings no real passion to the role of the young idealist.

The real enigma, of course, is Jessica Alba. Although as beautiful as any young actress in Hollywood today, she has yet to prove that she can actually act, and with every successive missed opportunity, she is building up a body of work that says maybe she can't. Her first feature staring role was in a flic called "Paranoid," in which she was frankly just plain dreadful. She has had supporting roles in a couple of other films, but the pictures were so dreadful you couldn't hang much of the blame on her, except maybe in her choice of roles. Her big break came in the James Cameron produced TV series "Dark Angel," which got its wings clipped after two seasons. In it, Abla was forced to play a rather depressing character in a depressing show and she could not get deep enough into it to make it the kind of hit that Jennifer Garner became in "Alias."

In Sleeping Dictionary, Alba definitely looks like someone any man would want to sleep with, but other than that seems in many ways miscast completely. I read one review here that mistakenly places this movie in South America. I wonder if the producers made the same mistake. The days when any dark skinned actress can play any dark skinned character, from Latino to Asian to Arabic, appear to be over to me. Alba didn't seem like a resident of Borneo. She in many ways seemed like a wise ass girl from East Los Angeles.

Then there's the main problem, her delivery of lines. Alba is excellent when she keeps her mouth shut. No, really, she does reaction shots extremely well. Her emotions play out beautifully on her face. It's when she has to talk that she often finds herself in trouble. In this film, much of her delivery of her lines was just short of bad.

More importantly, it wasn't good and that makes this film another big missed chance for Jessica Alba. It's too bad, because she was in part hampered by an under developed character, which may have been hampered by a restricted budget. Ten more minutes showing us who the main characters really were might have made all the difference in this film. But Alba still would have had to be good enough to handle the added material and I still don't know if she is.

She supposedly has another film in the works in which she plays some kind of hiphop dancer. Hopefully, at least playing the right race, she'll shine. But she just misses the mark for me in "Sleeping Dictionary" as she has missed it in everything she's done since "Flipper."

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