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Laugh-In (1977– )
A fast-paced, frequently-funny time capsule
13 November 2018
George Schlatter's late '70s reboot doesn't have a great reputation, and its primarily remembered today as the show that launched the career of Robin Williams. That's a little unjust on both accounts. "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" was already showing its age as the 1970s began, and it was finally put out of its misery in 1973. Four years later, producer George Schlatter assembled a completely new cast and rebooted the show for a series of six specials without the original frontmen... which was a mistake that literally cost him millions of dollars when Rowan and Martin sued.

The original show seemed to exist in a puff of pot smoke, but if there was one drug that fueled the frenzied new incarnation, it was cocaine. As a matter of fact, in a moment that I can't believe the censors let pass, an animated Robin Williams is shown sniffing coke, and then his head explodes and he dies! The Rowan & Martin show certainly never did anything so grim! A few of the hallmarks of the early version endured - most notably the wall of doors and the one-liner-filled dance sequences - but the show also liberally borrowed from SNL, Benny Hill, Love American Style, and others. Plus, each show featured an overblown original musical number performed by the cast (easily the weakest link in the show). The original had a zippy pace, but the speed here was positively frantic, with few routines lasting more than 30 seconds, and many confined to around 10. They managed to jam A LOT of material into 50 minutes.

Now, as for Robin Williams, as soon as the show wrapped, Garry Marshall had to buy out his contract in order for him to appear as Mork in "Happy Days," which turned Robin into an overnight celebrity. Cashing in on his sudden fame, NBC reran the shows for 6 weeks in 1979, touting him as the star. Unfortunately, he wasn't treated like anything special during the production, he was just one of about 14 members of an ensemble cast, each of whom was vying for screen time. Robin got to play a variety of characters (my favorite was a lab rat), but he was probably most often seen as a dimwitted cowboy.

The next most famous cast member is the flamboyant Wayland Flowers, who was well-known to viewers of daytime game shows and night time talk shows, thanks to his bawdy puppet, Madam, who received equal billing alongside him. On occasion throughout the series, Flowers traded Madam in for a black puppet named Jiffy, who seems shockingly racist by today's standards... but she's a riot!

Also seen were rubber-faced lizard-man Lenny Schultz, who mugged his way through most sketches while contorting his puss and flicking his tongue; doe-eyed Kim Braden, who portrayed a lot of very feminine characters like Dolly Parton; June Gable, who did a wicked impersonation of gossip columnist Rona Barrett; Michael Sklar, who seemed to be completely out of the closet at a time when very few men were; token black guy Ben Powers; and others.

One of the most interesting additions to the cast is Sergio Aragonés, a Mad magazine artist who is known as "the world's fastest cartoonist." Aragonés went on to create animated segments for the long-running "Bloopers and Practical Jokes" shows. We not only get some of the same animation here, but we see that Aragonés himself is the inspiration for the Luigi-like character seen throughout the Dick Clark shows.

As with the original, the humor is hit-and-miss... but when it hits, it hits hard. There are a lot of gags that derive laughs from subverting your expectations, and there's some very topical humor that's amusing if you're in on the joke. Bigot-crusader Anita Bryant was a regular target of ridicule, timely political references were worked in, ABC was humorously criticized for "jiggle-vision," "Soap" was denounced for being dirty, and "Donny & Marie" was just plain denounced! Between the mixture of comedy styles and all of the instantly-dated humor, the show is sort of a time-capsule of 1977.

Bette Davis got to ham it in a few skits, and Frank Sinatra was positively giddy when he got to pour slime on Rona Barrett, but other guests like Shirley MacLaine, James Garner and Roger Moore mostly appeared delivering one-liners. A lot of celebrities did appear though, and the creators often stretched and recycled guest-star material over several episodes.

All in all, it's a shame that this offshoot of the series isn't widely available anywhere. It's not Rowan and Martin's, and it's not The Robin Williams Show either, but some of the material holds up exceptionally well and other things would still seem funny today to those who were there.
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Mickey's 90th Spectacular (2018 TV Movie)
Half good, half bad
8 November 2018
It's Mickey Mouse's 90th birthday, and he's on hand for a star-studded tribute in front of a live audience.

Admittedly, I'm outside of the target demographic for this special at 41 years-old -- some of the younger stars were completely foreign to me (presumably the current crop of Disney Channel brats) -- but I've always been a sucker for a good Disney show. Unfortunately, I can't say that this was one.

There were a few skits with Mickey and Minnie Mouse (actors in costumes with impressive animatronic heads) which were generally cute. Folks like Kristin Bell and Leslie Odom Jr provided some history on the beloved vermin, while Tony Hale, Josh Gad and others delved into painfully unfunny comedy monologues (though Wendi McLendon-Covey's story about having a childhood crush on Mickey was both sweet and amusing). A handful of stars submitted short birthday greetings (Neil Patrick Harris, Kelly Rippa, Dwayne Johnson, etc.), plus Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake sent in reminiscences of their stints on '90s The Mickey Mouse Club. Original Mouseketeers Sharon Baird and Bobby Burgess were also on hand. These two are getting up there in years and seldom make public appearances anymore, so it seems thoroughly disrespectful that they weren't allowed to utter a single word! They're introduced, sit down next to Mickey, and then that's it! Why did they even bother to show up?

Some of the musical performances were exceptional (Odom, Sofia Carson, The Zac Brown Band) but others didn't fare as well... and why were Josh Groban, NCT 127 and Luis Fonsi performing non-Disney songs (furthermore, why was Fonsi singing a Spanish song in an English-language special)?!! Groban's song was okay despite being out of place, but I felt like I a victim of aural assault by the other two.

The thing that I found perhaps the most disconcerting was the array of clips that were utilized, since the title outright tells us that we have 90 years of Mickey Mouse footage to choose from. Yes, 'Steamboat Willie' was shown, along with a variety of clips from 'The Sorcerers Apprentice' (featured in virtually every one of the MANY montages) and other familiar classics... but the vast majority of clips seemed to be from the modern crop of Disney Channel Mickey Mouse shows, which are frankly very cheap-and-ugly looking.

It wasn't a total waste, but I wish I hadn't watched it live since there were WAY too many moments that I would've preferred to have fast-forwarded. If I'd been in the audience, my reaction may have been completely different, but running 2 hours (with nearly 40 minutes of commercials!), it felt like just another one of the annoying award show telecasts that we're inundated with every month.
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Remarkable performances in a film that sticks close to the story
6 November 2018
First, a little history to put things into context. By the time this movie aired on Halloween night 1994, America was completely sick of hearing about the Arnolds. Earlier that year, Roseanne joked that she, Tom, and their assistant Kim Silva were a thruple, but the situation changed when she discovered Tom and Kim had actually slept together. A tabloid frenzy ensued and dominated headlines as the Arnolds separated, with Tom being treated as an ousted Yoko Ono.

At the same time, there were a whole string of unauthorized TV movie docudramas in the works (Madonna, Liz Taylor, Nancy Kerrigan, etc.), so Fox and NBC each scrambled to to get a story about the power-couple's breakup on the air. Fox beat NBC by 3 weeks with their "Roseanne: An Unauthorized Biography," a reprehensibly inaccurate telefilm starring an utterly miscast Denny Dillon. Critics were uniformly disparaging, but no one showed more disdain for the movie than Roseanne herself. Probably driven by spite, Rosey quickly announced plans to host NBC's upcoming film and provide commentary, but she changed her mind and backed out ten days before the premiere. It's too bad that it didn't happen because it would've been fascinating and given this now-obscure movie a well-deserved boost.

Patrika Darbo and Stephen Lee had each guest-starred on "Roseanne" (Darbo was particularly memorable as a waitress whom Rosey had perceived as a doppleganger), and this might explain why their performances were so good -- as a matter of fact, Lee deserved of an Emmy for his thoroughly uncanny portrayal of Tom. Probably in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit, the Fox movie had played fast and loose with the facts, but the NBC film stuck relatively close to the true story... so much so that it almost feels like a love letter.

The popular sitcom is viewed peripherally, taking a backseat to the saga of the Arnolds, from their affair through their rocky marriage to their ultimate divorce. Roseanne is depicted as the brash and ballsy broad that she is, but we're also shown a woman who is struggling with the demands of fame, family, and the man-child who rocked her world off its foundation. Tom isn't portrayed as a villain, but rather as a drug-addicted sadsack who had fallen in love with TV's most popular and outspoken new star. Public perception was NOT on Tom's side at the time, but the writing and Lee's nuanced performance managed to make him seem sympathetic.

The movie does have some issues, most notably in how Roseanne is portrayed as a victim. While she was (and continues to be) one in many respects, we don't see much of the humor that she continuously uses as a coping mechanism. As such, she comes off looking sort of pathetic in spots. Now, that's not to say that there's no comedy, but strangely, it's Tom who instigates many of the film's moments of levity, dealing with Roseanne's tantrumatic kids, indulging in overblown shopping sprees with his bride-to-be and partaking in on-set shenanigans.

Another problem is the treatment of... well, most everyone else in the story. Roseanne's sister Geraldine has such a slight role that it's not especially clear who she is, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalfe seem almost sinister, and Rosey's kids are totally one-dimensional.

The script isn't perfect, a few details were altered, and the affair that ended their marriage was so recent and high-profile that they opted to gloss over it, but the performances are remarkable and if you're interested in the story of Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, this is undeniably the best movie available.
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A really pathetic excuse for a documentary...
24 September 2018
The box for this video release leads one to presume that it's a 30 minute documentary jam-packed with celebrity cameos and behind-the-scenes secrets about the making of "The Flintstones." The summaries on video boxes were sometimes intentionally misleading, but this is easily the MOST misleading description that I've ever read.

The only original material here is about a 10 minute featurette which includes a few minutes of interviews with William Hanna & Joseph Barbera, and a couple minutes of athletes ripping off the then-popular "Bo Knows" Nike ads ("Fred knows football!"). This is followed by the complete episode "The Blessed Event" (aka the birth of Pebbles Flintstone) and a super-corny music video for "The Flintstone Bop," which includes a guy in a Fred Flintstone costume DJ'ing as a bunch of kids in neon-colored clothes bounce around.

Although the featurette isn't bad (it's well-made and there are few interesting tidbits of information), it leaves a lot to be desired if (like me) you were expecting a full documentary. The music video, on the other hand, is pretty appalling. All in all, a really cheap and cheesy release.
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Dolly Parton: Treasures (1996 TV Movie)
A Music Video-Documentary-Commercial Hybrid
28 August 2018
Dolly Parton's "Treasures" album was filled with an assortment of covers of popular songs. For the promotional TV special, they amassed a collection of interviews with the original singers and songwriters and interspersed it with historical clips.

The special has many things going against it, most notably the short running time, which is marred by clunky editorial choices. Studio footage is blended with seemingly-live performances in which Ms. Parton is lip-syncing to the album tracks, and she comments on each of the songs that she... ahem... performs.

So it's a music video commercial... but wait, it's also a documentary! Not only do we get interviews with composers (such as Kris Kristofferson, who's superimposed into one of Dolly's video segments in a truly bizarre manner!), but at random times we cut away to historical footage from the days when the songs were originally hits. That's right, we now interrupt this Dolly Parton lip-sync performance to show you something completely random.

The ideas behind this special were kinda awesome, and if they'd had a 2-hour timeslot it could have worked well, but at under an hour, they fell short in the execution.
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Townies (1996– )
Why isn't this on Netflix or Hulu?!
25 July 2018
Townies centered on a group of 20-somethings stuck in a New England fishing town. Carrie (Molly Ringwald) was a good but sometimes outspoken Catholic girl who turned her back on religion despite the urgings of her mother and priest, and she kept Kurt (Ron Livingston), her sadsack best friend who vied for her affections, at arm's length. Pessimistic Denise (Lauren Graham) had a baby before marrying childish high school sweetheart Ryan (Bill Burr). Free-spirited Shannon (Jenna Elfman) wasn't looking to settle down, though she'd already run out of guys her own age to date. Carrie, Denise and Shannon worked as waitresses at The Pelican, a diner run by Marge (Conchata Ferell), whose dimwitted son Jesse (Joseph D. Reitman) was the busboy.

Molly Ringwald returned to the screen after a long hiatus and was touted as the star (which probably didn't help, since she was deemed a has-been) but this was really an ensemble show. And what an ensemble it was - not only did everyone have terrific chemistry, but all of Ringwald's costars were total unknowns at the time and they've each gone on to find success. The writing was a little wobbly at the start (as with most every sitcom), but they'd already begun to find their groove when ABC inexplicably dropped the show from the schedule. It wasn't "Friends" (which EVERY comedy of the day was compared to and vilified for not being), but frankly, it had a little more soul.

Scheduled on Wednesday nights where there were a whopping 16 sitcoms to choose from, most every show on that night did not return for another season - except for the ABC hits that surrounded this one (Ellen, Grace Under Fire & Drew Carey). Expectations were high, ratings weren't as good as they hoped, and instead of giving the show time to build an audience, the newly Disneyfied network pulled the plug without bothering to air the final 5 episodes.

The show got a supposed new lease on life in 2001 when Yahoo began offering them for free on their video streaming service, but online video quality was poor at the time and the site closed within a year. Since then, Townies has been relegated to oblivion, which I find very odd. A few jokes are dated 20-odd years later, but for the most part, the show still holds up remarkably well. And with the cast of familiar faces, this one seems like a perfect contender for sites like Netflix and Hulu... now that streaming video isn't tiny, pixely and continuously buffering.
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The Cleanse (2016)
If you watched the trailer, you've (practically) seen it all
6 May 2018
Paul has recently been dumped by his fiancée and fired from his job, so when he sees a commercial on TV for a retreat, he thinks this may be the jump-start he needs to turn his life around.

To say much more about the plot is to spoil the story, which is precisely the problem with this movie. Running a scant 70 minutes (with almost 10 full minutes of end credits), there's not time to get to know any of the characters aside from the lead and the story feels overwhelmingly underdeveloped, leaving a great many lingering questions. Frankly, it feels like a student film or a padded short populated by recognizable actors and complete with a pretentious ending. The performances are solid across the board (though everyone but Johnny Galecki and Anna Friel have little to do), there's a nice atmospheric mood in cinematography, music and direction, and the FX aren't bad.

I saw the trailer a few months ago and have been stoked for an offbeat oddity ever since. Unfortunately, the trailer played like an abridged version of the movie, leaving out only the resolution. For what it was, it's an okay movie, but it had the potential to be so much more.
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Clue (2011– )
Interesting premise, wobbly execution
1 April 2018
A group of teenagers are randomly assembled outside of a hotel for a school function when they witness a man inside being attacked by twin thugs and bludgeoned with a candlestick. With no evidence to support their claim of murder, the police think they're pulling a prank - so they're suspended from school(?!!) and they use their newfound free time to follow a trail of clues that lead to a web of intrigue and espionage revolving around the mysterious mad genius inventor Nikola Tesla.

First things first, this ain't your parents "Clue," a 1985 movie which was faithfully (albeit comically) based on the classic board game - which is now owned by Habro, who produced this version. Here the connections to the game feel flimsy and forced, with conveniently-placed weapons and the game's character names representing various secret societies.

The cast of teens and special effects are both surprisingly good, but the shortcomings are all in the scripts. You really have to suspend disbelief to buy that the kids are putting the clues together so quickly, and that each of them is not-so-randomly connected to the conspiracy (which isn't particularly a spoiler since it's never explained - clearly this was all a setup for a weekly series that never happened). Some of the twists were surprising, but the biggest two I could see coming from a mile away, and the climactic payoff was an enormous letdown. And the less said about idiotically cliched villains, the better.

This overwhelmingly reminded me of Fox's consistently-frustrating "Sleepy Hollow" and as I was composing this review, I discovered why: The same writer went on to work on that series. There was true potential if this had been an actual mini-series rather than essentially a feature-length movie, but the pace was too swift and there were too many elements that were hard to digest. Younger, less jaded viewers would probably find plenty to rave about, but as an adult familiar with all of the Hitchcockian tropes that were utilized, it was only a modestly entertaining time-waster. I gave it an additional star for the cast because there really wasn't a weak link in the chain of young actors.
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A fish out of water on early '70s television
11 July 2017
Bob and Carol Sanders are a pair of free-spirited 20-somethings, Ted and Alice Henderson are their repressed 30-something neighbors. Bob works for a TV network, Ted is a lawyer, and both of their wives are homemakers. The Sanders have a precocious young son and the Hendersons have a snarky tween daughter. Plots generally revolve around sexual frustrations and jealousies.

Loosely adapted from the hit 1969 film, the biggest problem with this show was that the material was a little too risqué for 1970s network TV (in context, this aired during the final season of "The Brady Bunch"). For example, in one episode, Alice reveals that she lost her virginity to another man prior to meeting Ted - but they had to dance all around the word "virgin." The other problem is that the characters were poorly defined. Bob and Carol were made out to be the hip, swinging couple, but you never really got a sense of that from their actions - the hippest, swingingest character was actually Alice, who was supposed to have been a wallflower.

Despite various problems with the writing, there were some genuinely funny moments, the cast was great and had appropriate chemistry. Robert Urich exuded charisma as Bob, and it was clear that he was destined for bigger and better things. Anita Gillette was absolutely charming as the flighty Alice, David Spielberg was pitch-perfect as tightly-wound lawyer Ted, and frequent guest-star Jodie Foster brought that patented brand of miniature adulthood that was present in all of her childhood roles. The weakest link was Anne Archer as Carol, though I don't think it was her performance, the problem was the lackluster writing of her character. Archer was never given much to do, and she revealed in an interview immediately after the show was canceled that she was relieved to be done with it.

Certainly not the worst offering of the '70s - and not the worst TV spin-off of a film either - but it's pretty clear why it didn't last long on the air. It's worth seeking out for fans of the cast (particularly Urich and Gillette), but fans of the movie would doubtlessly find it pretty appalling.
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Dead Ring (2016)
A unique, surreal and engaging no-budget oddity
10 July 2017
Following the tragic death of her entire family, Emily has developed survivor's guilt and agoraphobia. She rarely ventures out of her apartment and the only person she sees regularly is Ian, a 15 year old neighbor who has a lucrative business running errands for folks in the building. Determined to beat her fears, Emily finds an online ad for a radical doctor who helps agoraphobics. The doc's advice? Use art to create a doppleganger. And thus Em is born! Soon Emily and Ian begin building a strange friendship with Emily's creepy goth clone. But how is Em supposed to help Emily cope with her agoraphobia?...

Despite outward appearances this is NOT a horror movie. The only film that I can think of to compare it to is "Edward Scissorhands," and even that's a bit of a stretch. "Dead Ring" has many of the hallmarks of a student film, but that's certainly not a bad thing, if you don't mind the snail's pace, surreal plot and an occasionally stilted line reading.

Savanah McMahon gives a pretty solid performance as Emily, but she really shines brightly as Em (and I'm not merely referring to those freaky glowing contact lenses!). As a stranger in our world, Em has an appropriate sense of wonder and child-like innocence - and man, that makeup is awesome! As Ian, Nathan Olson is a bit green, but I wouldn't say his performance is bad - he hits the right notes more often than not, and he could become a good actor with a little more experience. The weakest link is Jacob Olson as Zak, a neighborhood bully who's made it his mission to torment Ian. Of course, it doesn't help matters that Zak's character only has a few brief appearances and adds virtually nothing to the story.

Craig McMahon deserves kudos for his writing (in this day and age, it's no easy feat to come up with a story that doesn't feel like a tired retread), and his direction is usually on the ball (overlooking the numerous roving skyline cutaways which seemed utterly pointless). The musical score (bafflingly credited to "Musicians all over the world") adds to the film's surrealism, though on occasion it overwhelms the dialogue. It's a shame that we don't have a DVD with audio commentary, because this is a movie that would greatly benefit from insight from the filmmakers.

If you're looking for something completely out of the norm and don't mind a plodding pace, I'd highly recommend this little obscurity. It's not without its little problems, but it's certainly better than the endless crap reboots and neverending franchises that the major studios have been bombarding us with for the entire 21st century.
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Kamillions (1990)
Why isn't this a huge cult classic?
22 June 2017
On the night of his birthday party, scientist Nathan Wingate discovers another dimension through a contraption he's built in his basement. Unfortunately, just as the guests begin to arrive, the good doctor gets sucked into the other world and two shape-shifting bugs with magical powers enter ours. One is good-natured, the other's a sadistic prankster, and the Wingate family and their eccentric guests are unknowingly caught in the middle.

Every once in a while, I'll see some old movie and say, "WHY have I never heard of this before?!" That was certainly the case here. Don't get me wrong, on the surface it looks like "MST3K" material - the acting is generally bad, the FX are super-low-budget, the pacing is off, and some of the gags fall flat. But man, the characters have enough individuality that you wanna root for them, the FX are impressively inventive, and a lot of the stuff is genuinely funny (it was co-written and directed by a now-longtime alum of "The Simpsons"). It's intentionally campy but teeters on a tightrope where it's simultaneously creepy and it boasts a clever twist too (assuming you haven't read the film's tagline!?!).

If Scream Factory or some other distributor would unearth and complete the director's cut of this endearing obscurity, there's a huge audience out there which is waiting to discover it. Until then, it's worth seeking out online if you're into '80s movies with extra corn!
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Nocturna (1979)
The Xanadu of vampire movies!
3 June 2017
Nocturna, Dracula's granddaughter, falls in love with a disco guitarist and follows him to the Big Apple, where she takes up residence with Drac's ex. The Count and his lovelorn henchman soon follow to bring Nocturna home to Transylvania. I generally open with a bigger synopsis, but that's how light the film is on story. There are a few run-ins with other characters in various vignette-like sequences, but they don't have a whole lot to do with the plot. However, there's a WHOLE LOT of disco music and shots of Nocturna twirling!

Years ago, someone recommended Nocturna to me and my initial reaction was, "Why'd he think I'd like this? It's awful!" It wasn't until I revisited the movie on a whim that I realized how FASCINATINGLY awful it is. The dialogue is abysmal, the performances are almost universally bad (though the always-delightful Sy Richardson managed to transcend the material a bit), the animated FX are beyond cheesy, the disco sequences seem endless, and a bathing scene drags on past the point of titillation into tedium. However, there's something oddly lovable about this obscurity. Years later, it dawned on me that it's essentially a lower-budget vampire version of "Xanadu": Starcrossed lovers with zero chemistry, a related antagonist who's weak (literally, in this instance), tons of music, some tacky animation, and a few dialogue scenes to loosely tie things together.

I've chronicled the making of the film at length elsewhere (it's become a minor obsession), but allow me to briefly reiterate... This was a star vehicle for bellydancer Nai Bonet, who had appeared in a few films and TV shows in the decade+ preceding Nocturna (she actually wasn't bad in "Soul Hustler"), but her biggest accomplishment was becoming a socialite among the Studio 54 type of crowd. She conceived the idea for the movie, got director Harry Hurwitz to write the script, secured soundtrack music from disco divas Gloria Gaynor and Vicki Sue Robinson (in an odd twist, Robinson went on to star alongside Bonet in her next-and-final film venture, "Hoodlums"), threw a few measly bucks at typecast frequent-costars Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, and got Compass International Pictures to produce and distribute the film. Critics universally panned the movie, audiences generally ignored it, and it only briefly blipped on big screens and video store shelves. Bonet made one final foray into film with a gangster disco-drama(!) she'd conceived and then she retired from acting for good.

If I could pick one largely-unknown film to get a lavish Blu-Ray release, this'd be the one. It's developed a small cult following over the years and it's a travesty that the only prints in circulation are taken from early 1980s VHS transfers. Despite its many, many horrendous flaws, there's something sort of magical about this little disasterpiece. So is anyone from Shout Factory or Scorpion Releasing reading this? Or MST3K/Rifftrax, even? (Brother Theodore could be the next Torgo!)
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Julie Brown: The Show (1989 TV Short)
Lovably corny... but dated
6 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
For those of us old enough to remember, "West Coast" Julie Brown had an MTV series, and she's kind of gone down in cult movie history with her bizarro 1980s sci-fi-musical-comedy opus "Earth Girls Are Easy" (which she co-wrote and co-starred in alongside Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans). Hermain schtick is the '80s valley girl, and in this pilot, she was playing herself as a variation of that character. This time she hosted a talk show at CBS, but everything is going wrong - her boyfriend dumped her in a humiliating way, Elizabeth Taylor was set to guest on the show but dropped out due to an accident, and a would-be encounter with Michael Jackson left her with a stowaway chimp. Brown also sings an excerpt of her cult hit "I Like 'em Big and Stupid."

In an era of stuff like "Murphy Brown" and "Designing Women," I can't see this having sustained much time on the air if it had been picked up as a weekly series. Julie was likable and it was cute and fluffy... but there's an inherent problem in Brown's material that it's often too timely, so some of the jokes don't make sense out of context later (Brown's Fox series "The Edge" suffered from a worse case of that). At Fox this might've stood a chance for a season, but not on CBS.

The pilot's surfaced and You Tube and it's worth a look for fans of Ms. Brown and costar Larry Poindexter, but it's hardly earth-shattering material.
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Day by Day (1988–1989)
A funny casualty of the '88 writer's strike
1 March 2017
Hard-working stockbroker Brian and lawyer Kate felt like they'd missed out on teenage son Ross's childhood, so when baby daughter Emily came along, they decided to stay home and open a daycare center. This transition was especially hard on slacker Ross, who'd become accustomed to having the house to himself. Working at the Harper Preschool was sweet college-student Kristin, the object of Ross's unwanted affections, who was majoring in psychology and minoring in weaving. And a constant fixture in their home was self-centered Eileen, Kate's best friend and Brian's former coworker, who eventually bought the house next door. A group of kids regularly appeared in the daycare center, but the only standouts were brainiac Molly and rascally Justin, both of whom were quick with the one-liners. Also frequently seen were Ross's buddies Stiv (formerly known as Steve), dimwitted Bob, dorky J.D. and pretentious Allison, whom Ross dated late in the series.

Created by Gary David Goldberg and future political comedy writer Andy Borowitz and featuring a lot of the same crew from "Family Ties," the show initially had a similar vibe in it's first run as a midseason replacement. Then a writer's strike stretched through the summer, which delayed the fall season and turned viewers away from network TV in droves. When the show finally returned for season 2, the cast really began to mesh and the tone got lighter (more akin to "Growing Pains"), with the hilarious "Brady Bunch" episode that's mentioned in every other review, fantasy sequences and other zaniness. Personally, I liked the second season better and was sad that there weren't more. After the show's cancellation, Lifetime aired reruns for a while and they popped up on TV Land around the turn of the century.

Aside from the bizarre "Brady Bunch" connection, the other most memorable component of this series was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who shined brightly as the total narcissist that hated children. Most of the laugh-out-loud funny jokes were spewed from her lips. It' also interesting to see then-novice, now-old-pro Courtney Thorne Smith learning the ropes of sitcoms. She was a little flat in the beginning but had improved by leaps and bounds by the end of the series. I could go on about each of the actors, but suffice it to say that they were each great in their own rite.

Paramount's not good about releasing their shows on DVD, but I hope they'll license it to Shout Factory or some other distributor someday. This was a funny, lovable little show and it's sad that it's kind of been forgotten.
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Quirky, surreal and completely out of the norm
9 February 2017
Mona (Fairuza Balk) is a young artist who lives with her pregnant cousin (Debi Mazar), works at a pet store (run by Téa Leoni) and she's recently realized that sweet boyfriend Jeff (Noah Taylor) feels more like a brother than a lover. The lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur when Mona encounters a sexy stranger (Patrick Dempsey) who may be the devil himself - and her lust for this man directly results in Jeff's death. So what's worse than accidentally murdering your boyfriend? Being the only one who can see his ghost.

I can't help but wonder what all of the people who wrote bad reviews expected to see. This is one of those movies like "My Boyfriend's Back" or a John Waters opus where the characters don't function in a normal semblance of reality - they're all one-note and their actions/reactions are often absurd. And on top of that, it's low-budget fantasy, so some of the FX (as well as Debi Mazar's wig) are somewhat lacking... but that sorta adds to the fun.

The story juts along at its own pace and in its own direction, and I can't say that I ever anticipated what was coming next - though the ending was a little cliché (not that I could think of a more suitable one). Balk is likable as always as the leading lady and Taylor is charming as her dead weight. Dempsey was well-cast but he only appears in a few scenes and doesn't utter a single syllable. And renowned scene-stealer Jeffrey Jones also deserves mention for his supporting role as a minister. Unfortunately, Leoni plays it pretty broad and Mazar was uncharacteristically restrained (actually it feels like they should've switched parts).

"Life in the Fast Lane" was cute, it held my interest throughout and made me chuckle quite a few times. I couldn't really ask for more from such a dopey little comedy... except for maybe a better title ("There's No Fish Food in Heaven" wasn't much better, but at least it made sense for the film).
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A mishmash of styles and ideas
9 January 2017
A young boy is stranded alone on an exotic planet with an egg-shaped walkie-talkie that he uses to communicate with a space crew.

Knowing René Laloux's "Fantastic Planet" and reading all the dazzling reviews here, I was stoked to see another animated masterpiece but I found myself horrendously disappointed. The first half of the movie is REALLY slow, cutting back and forth between the boy and the space crew. If that'd been the whole of the story, it might've still been awesome... but in the middle, the boy is forgotten for a while as the story is convoluted by evil angels and time travel. It's like there were two or three separate short stories that they tried to jam together into one movie - and then they threw in some anthropomorphized creatures, a pair of random musical numbers and a paradoxical twist just to hammer in the fact that this is a mishmash of disparate ideas.

The styles in the animation are almost as schizophrenic as the story. Most of the characters have the look of MTV's "Aeon Flux," one seems distinctly inspired by "Yellow Submarine," the boy looks like a Rankin/Bass creation, the spaceships look like Nelvana animated them and the animals are Disneyfied. It's all well done and pretty to look at, but the styles don't entirely coalesce.

There are certainly worse ways to spend 85 minutes, but I find the current 7.1 IMDb user rating absolutely baffling. A 5 is being generous.
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Sweet but not sugary
9 January 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Boxer Nick (Don Gordon, "Bullitt") sets off on a trek across California to find a man who owes him money, and along the way he happens upon a young Felicity (Carol Anne Seflinger, "Wonderbug"), who attaches herself to him like a barnacle. Although initially disenchanted with her, Nick is instinctively protective of the girl and genuinely comes to care for her.

I understand why this film's completely obscure - there's a whole lot of nothing going on in the story, which plods along at a snail's pace. However, there's some pithy dialogue, wonderful performances, beautiful locales and an underlying grit that's unusual for a film from 1965 - Felicity's father's a raging alcoholic, Nick's sister ran off with a heroin addict, and the duo crosses paths with a predatory gay guy and a promiscuous waitress. In another film, these elements could seem wildly exploitative, but they're generally handled with dignity here, preventing the movie from devolving into trashiness or the stereotypical sort of Disney fare that it could have been. In other words, it's sweet without being overly sugary.

If you're a fan of any of the actors, it's worth tracking down for their performances, though most of them have limited screen time and Sally Kellerman doesn't appear at all (honestly, I don't recall even hearing the song that she's credited for singing). It's certainly not the greatest movie ever made, but it feels like it was a labor of love for the small cast and crew.
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Condescendingly self-aware
21 October 2016
First things first, I was among the few who was genuinely excited about this remake. I thoroughly enjoyed 2015's "Rocky Horror Show Live" (check You Tube) and the various other musical TV productions of recent years. However, my enthusiasm gradually transformed into disgust for what I was witnessing. When I was in junior high and high school, I was ridiculed for my obsessive love of Rocky Horror. Then in 1991, Fox debuted the movie for Halloween and the next day, the very same kids who'd made fun of me were Time Warping in the school hallway. It was weird, and I later realized that was THE moment when RHPS began to mutate from a subversive cult thing to a mainstream classic. Watching this glossy travesty, I found myself overwhelmed by that same uneasy feeling I had a quarter-century ago after Fox first aired the film.

It took me a while to figure out the problem with the 2016 version. The cast and crew bestowed it with the same respect that audiences have shown the film in theaters for decades: They've treated it like it's schlock to be made fun of. There were certainly campy winks and nods in the original, but when it came time for the characters to emote, you believed Tim Curry could abruptly snap and violently murder someone or Susan Sarandon was having spontaneous orgasms. Those nuances are mostly absent in the performances here, and it's so self-aware and Disney-fied that it's kind of insulting. It's one thing for the audience to mock the screen, but most of the actors are mocking the characters that they themselves are portraying, which just doesn't work.

The dishonor of worst performance goes to Ben Vereen, who was woefully miscast as Dr. Scott. Placing the black Vereen in the role of uncle to white Adam Lambert's Eddie was a questionable decision to begin with, but Vereen mugs his way through his scenes, acting as if he's starring in some insipid kiddie comedy. It's downright bizarre. Runner-up in the worst performer category goes to Laverne Cox, who gives an admittedly exuberant but ultimately hollow performance as the mad scientist. Cox offered none of the underlying menace that Curry displayed in the role (Tim Curry could kill you, but Laverne Cox only seems capable of a whopping bitchslap) and she played it like she was the singular star in a glitzy drag show, mimicking Curry's syllables and vocal inflections with an annoying, fluctuating British/Southern Belle accent. The good Franks (Anthony Head, for example) fully inhabited the character and injected it with their own stamp, which Cox did not.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this production (overlooking the fact that the dancers aren't doing the steps being audibly described in the titular Time Warp) is how they've systematically whitewashed the rampant sexuality which was so pivotal to the flimsy plot. Today sexual deviancy is socially acceptable, other network TV offerings frequently devolve into scenes that would have once been considered X-rated -- and the Fox network aired the original film numerous times throughout the 1990s with minimal trims, so there's really no excuse. Casting Cox as a woman (regardless of the fact that she used to be a dude) completely undermines the story of the wholesome Leave it to Beaver couple being torn apart by a kinky sex freak. It was the gay community which embraced the movie back in the '70s, we have at least one openly gay and one transgendered star, and yet virtually all traces of homosexuality (as well as incest) were eliminated. It's oddly incongruous and completely destroys the narrative.

That's not to say that everything's bad. Adam Lambert and Ivy Levan are stand-outs as Eddie and the Usherette. Annaleigh Ashford gave a radically different interpretation of Columbia which works well, given the character's story arc. Similarly, Reeve Carney made Riff-Raff his own. Victoria Justice has an awesome singing voice. Tim Curry lends an appropriate air of dignity, and although he was physically unable to do all the things that his part required (such as turning the pages of a book), they came up with an inventive workaround. Nice to see him again, even in poor health. Unfortunately, the cons FAR outweigh the pros in this production.

Generally speaking, the remake that no one wanted (dating back to the days when MTV was going to do it) has lived up to all of the hateful hype. It brings nothing new to the table, it's like a pallid carbon-copy on tissue paper. Your best bet's to stick with the original, see the 2015 version or catch a live show instead.
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Zoom (2015)
A completely unique trip
1 October 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Spoiler-light. An artist draws a comic book about a film director; the director makes a movie about a novelist; the novelist writes a book about the artist. The movie shifts back and forth between the three stories, with none of the characters aware that they're directly affecting someone else's life. The artist (Alison Pill) works in a factory assembling sex dolls, which only strengthens her desire to have larger breasts. The director (Gael García Bernal) finds himself at odds with producers... and his own body. The novelist (Mariana Ximenes) dumps her boyfriend and gives up her modeling career to pursue her dream of writing.

If you can wrap your brain around the strange narrative (and don't mind the sight of bare breasts, which the actual director seemed rather preoccupied with), this movie's thoroughly entertaining. Without question, the standout segment is the artist's, which kicks off the film and forms the backbone. The movie hangs firmly on Allison Pill's shoulders, and she exudes a lovable charm which engages you as her situation goes from kind of odd to downright bizarre. The director's segment ranks a distant second, but the entire thing is rotoscoped (filmed and then animated) which gives it a surreal beauty. The weakest link is the novelist's portion, though it certainly isn't the fault of any of the actors - the problem is that this third vignette is entirely devoid of the overt humor which pervades the other two stories.

It's sort of a shame that there IS a weak link here, because this film is completely unique and has so much going for it. It's not perfect but it's one of those movies where it feels like everyone involved was pouring their heart into it, so the result is kinda magical. The performances are excellent across the board, the animation has a wonderful hand-drawn feel to it, the cinematography is exquisite, the music perfectly accompanies the visuals, it's well-paced and feels like a much bigger-budget film than it actually is. And then there's that ending. I literally had a big, dumb grin on my face all throughout the climax... though I recognize that what so greatly amused me could easily be off-putting to others.

The bottom line is that if you're the type who prefers offbeat indies to cookie-cutter Hollywood crapfests, there's a good chance that you'll love Zoom.
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Slightly better than the first movie... which isn't saying much
19 September 2016
A young woman takes a job on the night shift in a small curio museum. When her coworkers' bodies begin piling up, the prime suspect is one of the displays, a hideous doll which is purported to be possessed.

Very loosely based on a real story (relocated from early 20th century Florida to contemporary Britain), the original "Robert" was a tedious movie, paced at the speed of evolution, with characters who behaved idiotically and cheaper effects than the worst of the Charles Band killer-doll flicks. This time around, the pace is a little better (though it still takes far too long to get going), the characters are slightly more likable (a returning cast member steps up their game and the rest of the performances are decent) and the effects are... well, about the same. Frankly, it's a case of been there, done that, seen it - and much better. But sadly, I've also seen much worse. The biggest problem with these films is that suspense isn't handled well, it's draaaaagged out to the point of boredom and the payoff generally sucks.

It's sort of a shame that this trilogy (a third film is slated to be released next year) has been so painfully mediocre, cuz it's kind of disrespectful to the real Robert, who deserves a more faithful telling of his bizarre tale. Still, this sequel's a few rungs above the original, so perhaps the third film might actually be good.
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Star Trek: A Captain's Log (1994 TV Movie)
A fluffy retrospective
17 September 2016
In the 1980s and '90s, it was pretty common for the TV networks to roll out retrospective specials to boost ratings during November and February "sweeps" periods, and this is one of the dozens of Star Trek retrospectives produced over the years. William Shatner hosts from a mock-up of the ship's bridge, introducing a myriad of clips from the show/movies, punctuated by cast interviews.

I watched the original show in syndication when I was a kid, but don't consider myself a Trekker - however, there's virtually nothing in this special that I didn't know already. It's light and fluffy, with remembrances of things such as Nichols' encounter with Martin Luther King, a look at how fictional technology was later actualized, clips, clips and more clips. Also of note, Shatner's segments are nauseating to watch on a large HD TV, with a shaky-cam that rivals the ones used in The Blair Witch Project. Clearly there was some sort of technical problem but they inexplicably used the footage anyway.

I recently caught a rerun of this on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek's debut. For what it is, this isn't a bad special at all - but unless you're a die-hard fan who has to have everything, there isn't much here to warrant seeking out a copy.
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Life... and Stuff (1997– )
Wrong time, wrong format
28 June 2016
Rick and Ronnie are struggling in their marriage. He has a high-pressure job, she takes care of the kids, and they've hit a rut in their relationship. Andy is Rick's child-like brother, who dwells in a trailer parked in the couple's driveway. At work, Rick has befriended embittered boss Bernie and snarky coworker Jordan. Christine is Ronnie's nosy best friend.

Based on the stand-up act of comedian Rick Reynolds, there's definitely a show to be made out of his material... but this wasn't it. The tone was way too dark and awkward for a 3-camera studio-audience sitcom - and it hit at a time when TV comedies were all hoping to be the next "Friends." The performances were good all around but the writing felt dumbed-down-for-TV and the canned laughter seemed out of place.

20 years later, if this were done single-camera without an audience and outdated TV censorship restrictions, it could be a wildly successful show. Unfortunately, this one was just a matter of wrong time, wrong format.
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The Simple Life (1998– )
Who's the boss, again?
17 June 2016
Sara Campbell (Judith Light) is a Martha Stewart wannabe who decides to buy a farm and broadcast the show from her new home, much to the chagrin of her family (Florence Stanley, Ashlee Levitch), TV producer (James Patrick Stuart) and local farmhand Luke (Brett Cullen).

It's really hard NOT to compare this short-lived show to the better-known "Who's the Boss?" Again, Light is at odds with (and obviously attracted to) suave man-of-the-house Cullen. And again Light has a horny mother (Stanley)... who's a bit more unrepentant in her blatant lust for the farmhand than Mona ever was for Tony. And Luke takes care of his dead sister's kids (Ross Malinger, Eliza Dean), who are there merely to be precocious.

Looking past the obvious similarities between the two shows, "The Simple Life" was enjoyable, albeit forgettable. Light and Cullen really did have undeniable chemistry. Stuart was hilariously on-the-mark as the weasely, brown-nosing British TV producer; sex-starved Stanley was a riot, as always; and the delightful Sara Rue had too-small a part in a recurring role as Sara's stalker-turned-personal-assistant.

In an obvious ratings ploy (the sort that creates confusion amongst TV fans), there were two crossover episodes with "The Nanny," which directly preceded "The Simple Life" on the Wednesday night CBS schedule. No, this wasn't a spin-off... and it seemed like the scenes of Fran Drescher in the pilot were tacked-on as an afterthought.

Six months before this hit the air, word spread in the Hollywood rumormill that Martha Stewart, whose own show was on CBS, was furious about "The Simple Life" and "Style & Substance," both of which featured send-ups of her public persona. Despite decent ratings, "Style & Substance" (the better of the two) was yanked off the schedule after a month and canceled; "The Simple Life" was held back until summer, when networks "burn off" shows that they have no intention of renewing. It was fluffy, forgettable and probably didn't stand a chance of renewal anyway (7-episode midseason replacements seldom do), but "The Simple Life" wasn't really offensive enough to incite Stewart's wrath, unlike "Style," which (probably accurately) depicted her as a psycho control freak.
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Alice Cooper: The Nightmare (1975 TV Movie)
A great music-video special which has been overlooked on DVD
16 April 2016
After splitting with his longtime band-mates, Alice Cooper planned to make a movie focusing on a rock singer who was caught somewhere between a dream and waking life after surviving a plane crash. For months, he kept a tape recorder by his bed and chronicled his dreams for inspiration - but he wound up with really odd ideas, such as rollerskating into a courtroom accompanied by Groucho Marx. While meeting with a director to discuss the film, Cooper and producer Bob Ezrin were introduced to Vincent Price, and a lightbulb went off in Ezrin's head. Ezrin asked Price if he'd like to make his debut on a rock album, and Price was intrigued. The original plans for the movie fell by the wayside, but when the notion arose for doing a Broadway show, all of the seeds were sown for the "Welcome to My Nightmare" record. The title song was written by Cooper and Dick Wagner while vacationing in the Bahamas... fittingly, in the middle of a hurricane.

The album was recorded in Toronto in 1974, utilizing a team of musicians whom Ezrin had assembled for a Lou Reed album. When Price came in to record his vocals, he caught everyone off guard with his ridiculous attire: a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and striped pants (Cooper christened him "Jolly MacAmbre, Tour Guide at the Pasadena Palace of Insects"). He hardly looked the part of the menacing horror-meister, but the voice was really all that mattered. Price made some revisions to the dialogue and became giddy with excitement as he laid down his vocals.

The album was spawned from the idea for a movie, and likewise, the idea for this TV special was spawned from the album. After the band exploded in popularity, frontman Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) legally changed his name in 1972, but the rest of the band was still contracted to record with him. To sidestep industry politics, they devised this TV special and marketed the album as a soundtrack (issued on his WB label's subsidiary, Atlantic Records). Essentially, this special is a string of music videos loosely tied together with appearances by Price and footage of Alice tossing and turning in bed. It's notable for being the first time that a video was shot for every song an on album (which wouldn't happen again until Blondie's 1980 record "Eat to the Beat"). A few concessions had to be made to appease network TV censors, a few alternate versions wound up in the show, and he included his earlier signature tune "The Ballad of Dwight Fry."

Looking at it today, "The Nightmare" is kinda corny. Shot low-budget on video in a soundstage, it sort of has the vibe of an episode of "The Muppet Show" (which Cooper and Price each subsequently guest-starred on). But despite the visible shortcomings, they were able to pack a punch in certain scenes. Price is in top form as The Curator (who refers to himself as "the spirit of the nightmare"), and he seemed to be relishing his monologues - as well as dragging Cooper around on a leash. "Steven" includes a sequence in which a bunch of dancers clad in Cooper masks wander around, blindly reaching out, and effective editing techniques made the whole shebang pretty creepy. Similarly, "Years Ago" features Alice on a makeshift carousel, with the eerie tune, colored lights and inventive video effects making for a memorably weird audio/visual assault. The haunting tale of domestic violence, "Only Women Bleed," was shot under red lighting with the Coop surrounded by a group of mannequins and strategically placed dancers (including his soon-to-be wife, Sheryl).

The special was broadcast on the final episode of ABC's "In Concert" (ironically, Cooper had also headlined the first episode in 1972), and it went on to win an Emmy for outstanding video editing. When it was finally issued on VHS in 1983, the special was also nominated for a Grammy. By the time it aired, Cooper had already set out on an elaborate concert tour which incorporated many of the same dancers and costumes featured in the special and it was documented in the concert-film "Welcome to My Nightmare." Unlike this TV special, the concert has had numerous video and DVD releases. Segments went on to be played as music videos (the title tune has had significant exposure), and a few clips surfaced in Alice's "Prime Cuts" documentary.

Yeah, it's dated but for the time this was a cutting-edge special, and it's a damned shame that it hasn't been reissued since its sole American home video release in '83.
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Universal Home Video really dropped the ball!
15 April 2016
The title pretty much says it all, this is a making-of special for the 1980 cult flick that's reputed to be a ginormous bomb - but which has actually been an never-ending cashcow for Universal Pictures. Back in the days when movies were predominantly marketed to video stores with a price tag of $100, Universal wisely marketed "Xanadu" to the general public for $10-$20, so it's never been difficult to obtain... unlike this awesome syndicated TV special, which has been consistently omitted from home media releases.

"Making Xanadu" includes what you'd expect; there are interviews with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, songwriters Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and others. However, the real highlight is the unexpected - there's a bird's-eye-view of an alternate ending (in my opinion, it's superior) and a good look at the original version of "Suspended in Time," which was re-shot and pushed back later in the movie prior to the film's release (I don't think anyone would disagree that this scene looks superior either). Unfortunately, the final four minutes are kind of a letdown, as they wasted time chronicling the film's wrap party, where Olivia and other stars hopped around on the dance floor at the Xanadu club.

If you're a fan of the movie, this special is essential viewing... so it REALLY sucks that it's not legally available; all we have are multi-generational VHS dubs that fans have uploaded to You Tube.
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