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"Dirty Pretty Things" returns director Stephen Frears to the
multi-ethnic, working class Britain of his early success "My Beautiful
Laundrette," but now he's looking at illegal immigrants from countries
that were not necessarily part of the British Empire and are more
It is a shadow world of fear more commonly shown in American films than British ones -- and that's without including any information of how they got there, what with the news full of crushed train-runners in the Chunnel and limp smuggled bodies in trucks and boats. Audrey Tatou is far from the gamine American audiences were first introduced to, as a prickly Turkish immigrant.
The plot has twisty and intricate double-crosses that reminded me of the old sci fi movie "Coma," not just natives vs. immigrants, but frequently fellow immigrants manipulating, abusing, and taking advantage of others lower on the food chain as they use every possible trick to survive.
While we get a glimpse at the very complex motivations of the push/pull driving immigration, from social and religious restrictions to political refugees to economic betterment, there is a bit too much of the Noble Immigrant vs. the venal Nativists, culminating in a very explicit statement of assertion that could be straight from the mouth of John Steinbeck's Tom Joad: "We are the invisible ones who clean your rooms . . ." with a much more explicit etc. about being used as sex workers. But they are individuated and we care for the individuals very much.
As far as I could tell, the title is not explicitly referred to, but the accents are frequently difficult to decode.
(REVISED March 29, 2008 as my original submission on 31 August 2003 evidently offended someone, probably due to a direct quote I included from the film's dialog.)
"Four Brothers" takes an off-kilter premise and makes it credible, even
though over-the-top violence challenges the extensive efforts to create
The film is anchored in the strong, macho camaraderie of the four excellent lead actors who convincingly portray two white and two African-American boys raised together as rough foster brothers adopted by a kind-hearted ex-hippie. The easy chemistry among the four is physical, both in interactions and how they move around their childhood home, and in their running graphic teasing. Their back story is smoothly relayed as police report summaries by Terrence Howard, convincingly using his third accent in a film this summer after "Crash" and "Hustle & Flow." (Also stay for the credits when sort of home movies are shown about the brothers' earlier experiences.) While Mark Wahlberg's swagger is a bit much, though worked in as an ex-hockey player context, each actor effectively embodies a unique character at a raw point in his life. Particularly outstanding as non-stereotypes are Garrett Hedlund, as an androgynous rocker haunted by past abuse, and André Benjamin, as a husband and father struggling with a business. Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor very effectively masters Americana as a head hood.
While director John Singleton said on "Charlie Rose" that he sees the film as a Western in the tradition of John Ford and Howard Hawks, it's more like Sam Pekinpah crossed with detective "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" twisty noir vengeance mysteries. The gritty one-on-one confrontations are much more effective than the exaggerated machine gunned destruction, even as Singleton brings unexpected poignancy to a key rampage through a sympathetic victim that is heartbreaking.
Ironically the ex-marine brother is not the lead expert of the four with guns. While this seems like the third in a recent trilogy of using Detroit as a violent wasteland, after the remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Land of the Dead," Singleton accents the usual urban abandonment scenes by telescoping the action between wintry Thanksgiving to Christmas of constant snow, culminating in a white frozen climax that is more cleverly mano a mano and less violent than the preliminary confrontations. It would recall Springsteen's "Meeting Across The River" except that the soundtrack song selections instead superbly are later Motown, visualized nostalgically with '45's playing with the notable local skyline on that dark blue label. The rocker brother is a nice tribute to the city's white kick out the jams heritage as well. Unfortunately, the instrumental score is clunky and unsubtle.
The women are strictly ancillary for stereotypical uses, though respected by the men. Sofía Vergara as the "La Vida Loca" old irresistible girlfriend feistily adds to the multicultural mix.
Both for the violence and the blunt language, I thought it was really inappropriate that parents brought young children to the matinée I attended.
(Revised 29 March 2008 - evidently the version I submitted on 22 August 2005 offended someone)
"Croupier" is thinking-person's noir, very much like "Spanish Prisoner"
or "House of Games" or "Hard Eight." The voice over doesn't 100% work,
but has some rationale as literally a writer's voice.
While Clive Owens' intense performance is the primary reason to see the film, it does provide the opportunity to again see Alex Kingston in a role almost as sexy as in TV's "Moll Flanders." It has a nicely complex plot that reverses and turns in and around and keeps you guessing and then swirls back again.
It is worth seeing on a big screen.
(originally written 5/2/2000)(revised 3/29/2008 as my version submitted on 30 November 2005 offended someone)
"Beyond Honor" takes extremely important and serious issues of the
treatment of women and didactically reduces them to the stereotyped
treatment of an R-rated after-school special.
From the heavy-handed symbolic opening scene of an innocent little girl observing the ritual slaughter of a goat, debut writer/director Varun Khanna draws all his immigrant characters in the most simplistic outlines.
While the central character of the striving medical student "Sahira" is dynamically brought to life by Mirelly Taylor, the rest of the acting seems to be done by stick figures. Wadie Andrawis's father loses any point of demonstrating specific issues of possible suppression of women in Arab immigrant communities to seeming to be at the very least a universal domestic abuser of his wife and children to seeming to be violently mentally deranged. Even the traditionally religious men in border-line agit prop Middle Eastern films as "The Circle (Dayereh)", "Kadosh" and "Osama" weren't presented so cartoonishly evil. By the end of the film the dialog pretty much consists of shouted obscenities.
Though the same day I happened to see this film in a theater, "E.R." broadcast a very similar story line with a similarly obsessed revengefully religious brother driven partly by post-9/11 pressures and a blond boyfriend, that doesn't make this character any more human here, as he was equally poorly written, with an added twist of repressed sexuality spilling out into in ever more abusive ways.
The traditional women are presented en masse with as eyes-only visible through their chadors or burkhas, or whatever they are called, though my understanding is that they wouldn't wear those indoors among family members.
The climatically violent scene is presented like a slo-mo "Perils of Pauline" silent film confrontation.
Though this film does a poor job of representing such a serious issue, it does tack on the end of the film facts and links about female genital mutilation. Over the past few years there have been many excellent films about the Middle-Eastern/South Asian-immigrant experience in the U.S., including issues for women. A much more effective and dramatic treatment about honor killings was a short I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival "In The Morning", directed by Danielle Lurie, which is evidently being used by non-profit organizations who are more effectively fighting such horrors than these unfortunately cardboard caricatures accomplish.
(My original version of this review, posted 24 March 2006, offended someone. This has been revised 29 March 2008)
"Somersault" is a fresh spin on the in-over-their heads teenager movie,
particularly the mixed-up city girl confusing the well-meaning country
boy sub-genre. It is a sophisticated look at the motivations and
resourcefulness of a teen age runaway.
In her debut feature, writer/director Cate Shortland poignantly captures a girl's search for love and independence through sex. It isn't often that we see a film about tantalizing jail-bait from the girl's perspective.
The town settings from Canberra to Jindabyne in New South Wales are unusual for Australian films we usually get to see in the U.S., providing an unusual meeting place for cold-weather tourists, the poor in their service industry, and farmers in from cattle stations.
Abbie Cornish is a marvel in the central role. Looking startlingly like the young Nicole Kidman from her early Australian movies such as "Flirting", she morphs from coltish girl to sexual aggressor, even as it's clear she doesn't understand what she's getting herself into by thinking she can live out her fantasy in following one guy after another who she has met on the road. With the glimpses we get of her tumultuous inner world through a childish diary, "Heidi"s naiveté is palpably painful as Cornish projects her at different times in the film as being the character's actual 16 or pretending to be 20 when she thinks she can use sex as a manipulable tool without realizing what creepy situations can result. The subtlety of her performance extends to how differently she relates to men than women, particularly as she keeps seeking out mother figures.
Sam Worthington is heartbreakingly sweet as equally naive, somewhat older "Joe", who clumsily becomes her protector and something more. I wasn't clear, though, about his back story with issues in his past (there's a lot of family secrets all around). The film also comments on bloke culture, including the ambiguous touches of homo-eroticism in male bonding.
The scenes between these two marginalized young people are engrossing with their attraction and hesitation, as they clumsily imitate adult behavior that they can't really handle. Bouncing between maturity and immaturity, tenderness and aggression, they have enough trouble expressing and understanding their feelings without adding sex into the mixture.
A side story with an autistic child leads to a way too didactic discussion about empathy and emotions, with flash cards no less.
The cinematography had a lovely blue haze, but used fuzzy focus too often.
I had some difficulty understanding the male dialogue among thick accents and low sound projection in the Time Square Theater, compounded by the restless male audience, up and down, in and out, slamming doors, who seemed mostly attracted to the film by Cornish's nude scenes.
This film is a creative contrast to American indie films that tend to see young women on the cusp of adulthood more as victims as they experiment with their sexual power, such as "Blue Car" or "Hard Candy", or in commercial fare as innocents, like "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants", let alone male fantasy objects as in "American Beauty". A spate of recent non-American directors have focused on their impact on males, such as in "The Holy Girl (La Niña santa)", "À Tout de Suite (Right Now)", and "Lila Says (Lila dit ça)", with varying degrees of the success of this film in capturing their girl/woman confusion.
"Beowulf & Grendel" is a beautiful looking, modern re- interpretation
of part of the legend with a reluctant hero and sympathy for the
The barren Icelandic coastal scenery with wind-swept sounds dominate the film, and will doubtless be lost on small screen viewing, but the characters may then seem less dwarfed by nature. (I did wonder where they got their food, fuel and metal from these rock-hewn shores.)
Though the ponderous narration duplicates the on screen words as well as the visuals, debut feature film screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins makes several bold interpretive choices for a renowned man vs. monster legend, at least as I know it from Seamus Heaney's recent poetic translation.
The original's artistic focus on the power of the storyteller is frequently mocked, almost "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"-style, as Gerard Butler's Beowulf is consistently embarrassed by how his exploits have been carried and exaggerated by ever more flattering troubadours -- even as debut feature film director Sturla Gunnarsson has him quite dramatically emerge out of the sea from a shipwreck. His different accent, Butler's own Scottish brogue, is even explained by his distant homeland. Within the scope of modern manly epics, Butler carries off the costumes and fighting better than Clive Owen in "King Arthur", but doesn't come up to the high bar set by Russell Crowe in "Gladiator".
From the opening unprovoked attack that establishes the basis for Grendel's life-long revenge-seeking, Stellan Skarsgård's increasingly haunted King Hrothgar seems to intentionally recall the obsessively grieving king Denethor of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", in a nod to Tolkien's significance as a Beowulf scholar.
Grendel himself seems to come out of a classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie, though without CGI, as a giant who selectively tears into men (and there is quite a bit of blood spewn in his attacks). "Grendel's Kin" (the script refers to them as "trolls") is scarier in the water before she vengefully stomps onto land, looking a lot like a Very Tall Wraith from the TV series "Stargate: Atlantis".
I haven't read the John Gardner version, but this one is certainly sympathetic to Grendel from the beginning, and on as Beowulf oddly finds he can communicate with him, through the quizzical character of the alleged witch Selma (Sarah Polley returning to Iceland as in "No Such Thing"). While explaining her Canadian accent due to having been carried off as abused spoils in war from yet another outpost, her gradual seduction of Beowulf doesn't have much more heat in this cold clime than her other sexual encounters. She does spit out the sharp-tongued retorts quite well -- when Beowulf tries to establish sympathy that he too had been a war captive, she wryly comments that he hadn't worried about being made a whore by the victors. Unfortunately, her Cassandra-like prophesies kill some of the suspense.
As Beowulf gradually figures out the background truth, he becomes increasingly ambivalent about helping the king, which raises the question that maybe successful movie epics aren't meant to have Hamlet-like, hesitant heroes. His rueful warning that the others who come after him will be different is literally a double-edged sword.
The language is a confusing effort at trying to seem both ancient and modern, though the very contemporary Mamet-like profanity effectively gets across that this is a testosterone-fueled world of rough warriors. The actors all seem more natural and passionate when the dialogue is more modern. I assumed the male teasing was intentionally funny Shakespearean-like jibes, but no one else in the audience laughed at the sarcastic comments and one guy kept yawning. The literal pissing contest between men and monster was also funny.
The Christian overlay in a bloody pagan tale of magic is dealt with by having this Danish tribe presented as being on the cusp of Christian conversion hastened by the old gods seeming helplessness against the monsters' attacks.
The men's wigs and beards are among the best and most believable I've seen in an historical saga. However I would find it hard to believe that the Queen's hairdo was supposed to intentionally recall "Princess Leia" from "Star Wars". She doesn't get to do too much but is a strong helpmate covering up her husband's weaknesses. Polley's 'do is pretty much just a rat's nest.
The score is overly bombastic, but occasionally incorporates tribal sounds of percussion and eerie voices that are more evocative.
"The Road to Guantánamo" is not a documentary. It is a series of
interviews interspersed with dramatic recreations and news video. It
comes across viscerally as a powerful docu-drama with the feel of
"based on a true story" prison films like "Midnight Express" or war,
extending beyond the style of "Reds", or Holocaust memoirs that edit
together the real and the reel.
Co-director Michael Winterbottom's recreations in situ are so blazingly hyper realistic that they are hard to distinguish from the non-identified actual news video. Though the in-your-face feeling is interrupted near the end with jarring omniscient narration, the film has the direct immediacy of his "In This World" exploration of young Afghan refugees going in the opposite direction.
But this feckless, eyewitness journey from slacker British young men of a variety of Muslim South Asian backgrounds to modern Pakistan for an arranged marriage to an ancient Afghanistan with motor transport that explodes into the chaos of a war in coalitions from tribes to bombs, and then into the no man's land of Gitmo are undercut by co-director Mat Whitecross's unchallenged interviews with "the Tipton 3". (It is a bit difficult for American ears to always understand their accents and it did take me awhile to keep them straight, as each interviewee is also portrayed in action by an actor, until the conclusion when we see real documentation of them completing the original purpose of their trip.)
While we understand that any first-person account will be self-serving, self-aggrandizing and deflective, their ingenuousness is so remarkable that it is simply hard to believe that any guys presented as this foolish and reckless can live outside a "Clerks" or "Bill and Ted" movie. You were going where in October 2001? Because you heard the nan bread there was really good? Because you wanted to "help"? And they were originally four, with one missing and presumed dead from the initial attacks. The illiterate kids on the Iraqi border portrayed in "Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand)" without even understanding the English on CNN seemed better informed than these guys. We don't learn until near the end of the film they are ex-juvenile delinquents (though their brushes with the law ironically provide their alibis).
Though it is a bit confusing as to why it took so long for them to admit their British citizenship, their very idiocy and naiveté effectively undercuts the rationale for Guantánamo and its counter-productive interrogations of alleged evil-doers and their sympathizers. The years it took the U.S. and Britain to realize their incidental involvement in history also emphasizes, especially through flashbacks and daydreams to the guys' Western-style adolescence, how late the authorities were to realize that their on-the-ground observations could have been useful intel about the pull of Muslim solidarity, recruitment and attitudes.
The titular progression is key as once they are caught up in the war, each move they experience you think can't get any worse to endure, and then it does get worse and ratchets up further. Their experiences at Gitmo itself seem out of the Inquisition, if not medieval witch trials and look much more like revenge out of Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy than really providing any useful information that the fictional "Jack Bauer" would get for immediacy's sake in "24". While this doesn't quite get into the territory of the kind of extreme accusations of what happened at Abu Ghraib, and the prisoners are grateful for tiny kindnesses of Americans such as stomping on a threatening scorpion, there is clear disrespect for the Koran and Muslim beliefs, reinforcing the other side's rallying point. We don't see enactments of the hunger strikes or suicides we have heard about recently, so perhaps those happened after these three were released.
As has so often happened to political prisoners through history, these young men end up impressed that their fellow inmates who best withstand the nightmare with discipline are the most observant and ideological such that they are radicalized and by the end they of course refused to cooperate.
I was thinking that the British actors portraying American interrogators had terrible accents, until a closing line that a Brit later claimed he was one of the alleged Americans.
While a viewer has to take the facts with some grains of salt, the film is as gripping as it is cautionary on many levels.
"A Prairie Home Companion" is a sweet adaptation of Garrison Keillor's
radio show. Much as director Robert Altman adds his trademark ensemble
dialogue touches, it is strictly for fans. I have been one for decades
ever since I caught it on the car radio and mistook it for just this
kind of old-fashioned radio program that appears like Brigadoon out of
the ether from the opening shot of transmission towers as night falls,
just as I used to catch variety shows at night on my AM transistor
radio, like WWVA's Country Jamboree, that still airs at the same time
Unlike the show's brief stint on the Disney Channel (satirized effectively on "The Simpsons" as too cerebral humor for television) or the recent version of some of the same songs and skits from the film on PBS's "Great Performances", this is not just a film of the broadcast, which I've seen in person twice (once at its home base as shown here at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and once on the road in NYC where I remember the participants running around more frantically just in time to sound casual on the air), but a tribute to the kind of show that inspired it.
Keillor's own script, not dissimilar in plot to a Muppets movie, has regular characters from his stories appear, with mixed effectiveness, as real people, literally or as types. Though there is only elliptical reference to Lake Woebegone, Kevin Kline is gumshoe "Guy Noir", Virginia Madsen is an angel of intersecting coincidences (with an ironic joke about NPR driveway moments), and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are funnier and more musically talented ersatz cowboy duo "Dusty" and "Lefty", respectively, than we usually hear. Instead of Keillor's monologue all at once, we get a running joke of pieces of his drawn-out explanation of how he got started in radio.
Who raises the film to larger interest is Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin playing a sister singing duo. Not only are they magical masters of Altman's overlapping dialogue technique as the camera circles around them (such as we briefly saw when they introduced Altman for his Honorary Oscar), but clearly improv around the situation. They spur Lindsay Lohan as Streep's sullen daughter to new heights of interacting with chemistry and singing in character. Streep's sweet and supportive, but not wholly disingenuous, sister and mother is amusingly the opposite of her titular boss in the simultaneously released "The Devil Wears Prada", in case we needed more proof of her range as an actress.
The fictional radio show is almost all musical. Unlike the public radio show's more typical "Ed Sullivan Show" mix of international, jazz, classical or regional music, this more Grand Ole Opry version has a heavy emphasis on red state values inspirational songs. We see usual guests the Hopeful Gospel Quartet with the addition of a Negro spiritual interpreter to add some visual diversity, along with Maya Rudolph with nothing particularly to do as a pregnant stage manager's assistant. We also see the weekly show's past and present regulars from usual back-up band (Andy Stein, Butch Thompson, Pat Donohue, Peter Ostroushko) and sound effects expert Tom Keith. Most of the songs are Keillor's twist on traditional or familiar tunes with modified humorous lyrics, including an acerbic "Frankie and Johnny" by Lohan in updated celebration of the murder ballad.
Even when corny, the humor was gentle (and the trailer gave away most of the best jokes) and the older audience constantly chuckled appreciatively, in a converted multiplex theater much like the Fitzgerald.
Except for an epilogue that doesn't quite jell, the casual action mostly takes place in a back stage stuffed with decades of performance memorabilia that reinforces the sense of place. This is a lovely tribute to the culture of Midwest America.
"Only Human (Seres queridos)" is a broadly comic "Guess Who's Coming to
Dinner" for Shabbat. Even with some of the same silly slapstick as the
parallel over-the-top satires "Go for Zucker! (Alles auf Zucker!)" and
"When Do We Eat?", it is both intelligent and funny.
Amidst the nonsense that happens when the prodigal daughter returns from a job in Spain to her Argentinian Jewish family with an older academic fiancé who happens to be almost as perfect a Palestinian as Sidney Poitier was a Negro, there are surprising moments of poignancy and truth.
The first refreshing element is that this secular, assimilated family who has changed their last name does not look or act like Jewish stereotypes - they don't seem any crazier than any other family. They are not rich (the father got demoted at his salesman job), though the film does gently mock the daughter's pretentious intellectual TV program like those we've seen in several French films lately. Her fierce sibling rivalry with her sexy single mother, belly-dancing sister has spark. The blind grandfather has a complicated Holocaust and Zionist past that contradicts stereotypes of Argentina as a Nazi haven, though it recalls the family in "Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido)". The brother's effort to become Orthodox has become a common comic foil in films lately, though his subversive effort to teach his niece Hebrew is quite droll.
The second surprise is that heavy philosophical discussions are made both effectively personal and very funny. including a debate about atheism vs. fundamentalism and Spain's role vis a vis the Inquisition and Muslim Moors. The misunderstandings about his Israeli passport are geo-politically amusing, including his travel travails. When told his mother is from Nablus, her confused mother is surprised: "There must not be many Jews in Nablus." Even though we don't learn too much about him (other than that Guillermo Toledo of "Crimen ferpecto" is one sexy dancer), he becomes increasingly more human as he's caught in awkward situations during the course of the film, culminating in a hilarious, no holds barred "I'm not a racist!" lovers' quarrel about religion, lifestyle, history and politics.
The slapstick is mostly funny, particularly a traveling frozen and defrosted chicken soup. Perhaps lost in translation is a too long side odyssey the dazed father takes through the city streets, let alone a silly duck.
The score and klezmerish and Middle Eastern musical selections are marvelous, though used a bit too much to emphasize the slapstick, including "Havah Nagilah" too heavy-handedly in one scene. The setting is mostly limited to one apartment, with every inch used very effectively.
The subtitles are always legible, though the print released in the U.S. uses British spellings and quizzical slang, that may have something to do with the four country funding from Britain, Spain, Portugal and Argentina. As is usually frustrating with subtitled comedies, dialogues are put on screen before the punch line is spoken out loud.
"Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" is an entertaining and informative
tribute to the iconic singer-songwriter/poet.
Structuring the film as a mostly chronological autobiographical interview with Cohen, director Lian Lunson intersperses his personal family photographs and home movies with cover performances at a Sydney Opera House concert to illustrate themes in his life. While his experiences in New York City have been well-documented to fans, especially in his own songs, the depth of the influence of his Canadian heritage is a new insight. With only a humorous nod to his reputation as a "ladies man" (he sounds like every rock 'n' roller on VH-1 cheerfully admitting that he became a musician to pick up chicks), his spiritual explorations are well explained, including his Jewish background and a visit with his Zen mentor.
Unusual for this adulatory genre, Cohen is articulate about his songwriting as a painstaking craft in general, though only a couple of specific songs that we see intensely performed or the albums they are from are given more context, such as who "Suzanne" was and working with Phil Spector.
Throughout, the performers from Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland and Australia, male, female, straight and gay, discuss his songs and the impact they have had on their lives and art. While it is not mentioned until the very last credit, this 2005 concert is based on a packed 2003 concert in Brooklyn also produced by Hal Willner, as part of the Canadian Consulate's annual Canada Day sponsorship in Prospect Park, under the rubric "Came So Far For Beauty: An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen Under the Stars," which featured many of the same performers captured on stage here, including Rufus Wainwright, who relates surprising personal anecdotes about his formative connection with the Cohen family, his sister Martha Wainwright, his mother and aunt Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Nick Cave, the Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks), Teddy Thompson and his mother Linda Thompson, and Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen who have backed Cohen on his last two tours, with an all-star downtown NYC band led by the horns of Steve Bernstein and the master guitar of Mark Ribot.
Instead of Laurie Andersen at that magical night, added are Jarvis Cocker and Antony Hegarty (known respectively as the leader of the bands Pulp and Antony and the Johnsons, though that's never mentioned in the film) and Beth Orton. The performers are only identified in the opening and closing credits. While the concert footage nicely mixes close-ups and full band shots, it is more than half-way through the film before we hear any audience reaction, and we only see glimpses of the audience towards the end. Added climactically just to the film is Cohen singing with U2 at a small club.
The interviews are all talking heads, with the extensive Cohen conversations focusing on the planes of his face, particularly as the camera gazes at him adoringly during silences, including a lot of freeze frames. There is an annoying repetitive device of blurring with fades in and fades out, and theatrical focus on a back stage scrim of beads, accompanied by odd theremin-like sounds. This reinforces the somewhat cabaret interpretations of several of the performers that would seem more appropriate to a Tom Waits tribute and are very unlike the two tribute albums that have already been produced.
Cohen himself is so charismatic and his rumbling voice is so magisterial that he surmounts the visual gimmicks.
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