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by debbie lynn elias

Movies. They have served many a purpose over the past century, affecting each of us in a different way; drawing us to the celluloid images with individualized magic. During WWI and WWII, movies promoted the sale of bonds, gave a glimpse to those at home of their loved ones and the news abroad. Movies served and still do serve as a tether between families, friends and strangers, instant "Crazy Glue" if you will, bringing people together that wouldn't normally gravitate towards each other. During the Great Depression, at the direction of the President of the United States, movies were to be upbeat and happy, serving as a respite for the American people during harsh economic times. It was during that time period that a little girl named Shirley sang and danced her way into the hearts of millions, bringing smiles to the faces of everyone's heart she touched. They say history has a way of repeating itself. Take a look at the world today. Many believe we are in as dire a strait as we were in 1929. But what's interesting, is that no matter how tough the times, how tight the wallet, we all still manage to scrape together that $10.00 to escape to the movies, just like that nickel in the 20's and 30's. Just look at today's box office - all singing, all dancing high school seniors pulled in a cool $82 million worldwide in one weekend making us all forget our troubles (and by the way, the largest movie musical opening ever in the history of the box office), 200 dogs are wowing us with their wagging tails, and even psychological terror more horrific than anything in life are drawing us in droves for entertainment, joy, escape or just to see something more horrific than our own life. Yes, the movies.

Many of those that have entertained, informed or educated us, made us laugh or made us cry are long gone. But Hollywood and the moviemaking goes on and thanks to organizations like AFI, not only is the magic of our movie history preserved, through its education, filmmaking workshops and yes, The AFI Film Festival, fresh new faces and talent are promoted and encouraged to continue - and even surpass - those of days gone by. And one of the first places to look for those that will continue in the traditions and excellence that came before them is at the AFI Film Festival.

Marking its 22nd year, on October 30, 2008, AFI Film Festival lifts the curtain on a spectacular, diverse and eclectic array of films spanning the globe. In addition to competitions of features, documentaries and shorts from emerging filmmakers, AFI also plans to wow us this year starting with an opening night gala debut of DOUBT, directed and adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play starring Academy Award winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and ending on November 9, with Edward Zwick's epic DEFIANCE starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. Chock-full of goodies in between, you’ll find 151 films from 38 countries with everything from a tribute to one of my all time favorite directors (and a heckuva nice guy), Danny Boyle, and the world premiere of his latest work SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (think Regis and ABC and part of the theme will emerge), as well as a tribute to Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, to Mickey Rourke’s re-emergence in THE WRESTLER, a film that stopped the festival cold at Cannes, to Stephen Soderbergh’s 4hour epic CHE (Intermission has returned to the theatre, folks. Get ready for the dancing popcorn “Let’s all go to the lobby” songs again!)

So, as the curtain gets ready to rise on October 30th, let’s take a look at what has become a tradition for myself and all of you, some of my MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILMS at AFI Film Festival 2008!

One of the early frontrunners to make its mark is Not Quite HollywoodNOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF ‘OZPLOITATION.” A blast from the past with uproarious and irreverent thunder from down under - thunderous laughter that is - NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD celebrates the genesis of Australian from the 50"s and 60"s right up to the 90's but with heavy concentration the Australian film genre of the 70's and 80's complete with nudity, free love, lots of sex and slasher-hacker blood soaked terror. And that’s AFTER the introduction of the R-certificate, Australia’s brand of censorship in 1971. “Narrated” by Quentin Tarantino (who let’s face it, is an annoying but knowledgeable distraction to the film), director Mark Hartley has put together one of the most entertaining historical chronologies I have ever seen and exposes the world to such classics as “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, “My Brilliant Career”, “The Man From Hong Kong” and of course, the quintessential film of this era that gave the world a man named Mel, “Mad Max.”

While outrageous and riotously funny, Hartley infuses interest and education through anecdotal commentary opening discussion on High Art versus Low Brow 70's Culture Wars, Nudity in the Australian Cinema (Down boys, down! Wait for the film!), Stunt and Special Effects work (which gives new meaning to death wish) and Car Culture and Drive-Ins. Jam packed with interviews of the filmmakers and actors of the genre including Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, Russell Boyd, writer Everett de Roche, director Richard Franklin, George Lazenby, cinematographer John Seale and renowned stuntman Grant Page, Hartley weaves a web of fascinating filmmaking chock full of factoids, fun and oh yes, naked breasts.

If for no other reason, the editing of Jamie Blanks, Sara Edwards and Mark Hartley is reason enough to see NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. It is killer!!!!!! Just wait until you see those Aussie slasher hacker montages. An absolute riot. That work called for the precision of a Ginzu knife! Pacing, but for a brief segment on the 90's, is right on the money. But the real star of this film is the soundtrack. Absolutely fantastic. Some real tongue in cheek musical selections that were paired with film footage better than food and wine in the finest 5 star restaurant. The real key, however, is the fact the soundtrack is continual, non-stop, propelling the film and keeping the energy level as revved up as Grant Page during an outrageous high speed chase.

And speaking of non-stop, hold on to your hats as Eugene Hutz and the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello explode onto the screen in the documentary GOGOL BORDELLO: NON-STOP. Talk about living the American Dream!! Hutz certainly has. The heart and soul of Gogol Bordello, this is essentially his story, chronicled by director Margarita Jimeno who picks up his tale in 2001 when she discovers the band bringing down the house at the Bulgarian Bar Mehanata in Chinatown, New York. An eclectic blend of concert footage, rare home movies of Hutz from his his teenaged years in Kiev and interviews with band members, friends, fans and Hutz himself, all are interwoven into a high octane tapestried and textured presentation that will have you dancing in the aisles!

Poignant and heartfelt, we are privy to a 1988 family New Year’s Eve gathering where his uncle’s fondest wish for Eugene is that he leave Kiev, go to America and join the U.S. Army. Little did his uncle know, the Army was the furthest thing from Eugene’s mind. One of the last 100 people left in Russia with refugee status, Eugene and his family ultimately made it out of Kiev. Allowed only $400.00 dollars per family and limited personal items, Eugene brought 20 records with him, 2 guitars and bag a Russian watches as he thought tourists would want to buy them. Unequipped for life outside Russia, the family was stripped of all documents, having to give up citizenship in order to get refugee status. Initially taken to Austria, life was tough for Hutz and his family. With no holds barred honesty, he talks about facing one disappointment after another “until there are no more expectations.” Yet, despite all that he has lost, there is no bitterness. There is only joy. There is celebration. There is peace. There is freedom. Freedom to make music. Freedom to embrace life and all to has to offer. Freedom to belt out lyrics laden with blatant socio-political and religious commentary such as “Immigrant Punk” and “Legalize Me.” All of which is exquisitely captured on film by Jimeno in Gogol Bordello’s mind blowing concerts - both big and small.

Eventually making his way to the US, what started as a birthday party for Hutz at a Bulgarian bar turned into a weekly gig for a what would soon become an international phenomenon - Gogol Bordello. Hand picking his band members, Hutz’ expounds on his criteria. Character counts and is first and foremost to him followed by a musician’s willingness to be an ensemble and his core belief of “playing for the joy of playing music.” As time passed, Hutz put together a motley crew of some extremely talented fellow immigrants including Yuri Lemeshev on accordion, Sergey Ryabtsev on violin, Oren Kaplan on guitar, and Eliot Ferguson on drums, as well as dancer-percussionists Pamela Racine and Elizabeth Sun. The interviews with these individuals showcase the true love and admiration each has for Hutz and his frentic, kineticism and creativity.

Known for his outrageous storming of the stage, individualized hand sewn costumes that reflect the lyrics of each song, through the band’s performances and thanks to superlative editing by Jenny Golden and Jimeno that pulsates to the beat of Gogol Bordello , the gypsy punk experience is captured in its most glorious as we see Hutz’ go full throttle with his “possibly perverse” non-stop on stage dynamic presence (often performing in clubs for 6 hours at a stretch). As much as the clubbers and concert-goers come to be a part of the live show and embrace an atmosphere of enjoyment that “throws away the hierarchy of society” so will you with this kaleidoscopic, heart-pounding, introspective into one of the hottest groups on the international music scene. GOGOL BORDELLO: NON-STOP is non-stop entertainment and one of my top two MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILMS of the entire Festival. (And the fact that Hutz stars in and the band is featured in Madonna’s directorial debut “Filth & Wisdom” opening on October 31st, is an added reason to check out this film). Abel Danger

Hankering for another taste of Eastern Europe, how about the thriller ABLE DANGER. Writer-director Paul Krik weaves an intricate tale of intrigue in this fictionalized tale of Tom Flynn, a left-leaning bookstore owner who just happened to have published an expose on 9/11. Enter the sultry and mysterious modern day femme fatale, Kasia, herself on the run from a 9/11 cover-up as she allegedly has ties to Mohamed Atta thanks to Able Danger, a hard drive that contains the identities and plots of the real architects of 9/11. Crossing paths in true film noir stylings reminescent of “The Maltese Falcon”, it doesn’t take long after meeting this Eastern European beauty for Flynn to become implicated in the murder of a friend, be on the run from every government agency known to mankind and be forced to look beneath the surface at who and what Kasia really is.

Krik goes for the jugular and pushes the panic button in each of us with this too-close-for-comfort telling of a tragedy that changed the world as we know it forever. In fact, the title, ABLE DANGER, is derived from the actual top-secret classified intelligence project allegedly initiated by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1999 as a means to combat terrorism in general and particularly, al-Qaeda. The project was allegedly disbanded in 2005 after the public learned of its existence. Rumored among conspiracy theorists, Able Danger contained every bit of data on the true 9/11 architects. The stark reality and truth of Krik’s story hits you right between the eyes, particularly with the jerky “Blair Witch Project” hand held lensing of cinematographer Charles Libin together with Krik. After seeing Libin’s camera work in “Rachel Getting Married” and “Be Kind Rewind” and now ABLE DANGER, his styling is patented ,taking on defined traits which may be annoying to some and captivating to others. With ABLE DANGER, the stark jerkiness works exceedingly well with the film noir thematic and leads to some heart pounding moments of true white knuckle terror.

Not to dampen your spirits, Adam Nee is unfortunately less than believable as Thomas Flynn. On the other hand, Elina Lowensohn’s Kasia is effortlessly riveting. She draws you into the intrigue and dangles her hidden secrets in front of you like a dangling carrot to a horse. One can easily see her in a Mata Hari role slinking with terrorists, hiding secrets and taking possession of the Able Danger.

Despite its budgetary constraints, ABLE DANGER is a smart, well conceived cat-and-mouse conspiracy theory thriller that draws on the strength of the story and the public’s fear of the known and unknown, building tension at every turn, with every shadow, with every bat of an eye from a darkened corner. Whatever you do - don’t make this the last film of your night!

Now for some real terror, how about sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, death and familial destruction at the holidays! Yep, now we’re talkin’ turkey as AFI favorite Catherine Deneuve presides over her family at the holidays in A CHRISTMAS TALE. Shot in Cinemascope (an early holiday treat for all you moviegoers if you have never experienced that technical achievement and an even bigger gift for those of us who love the format), this is the holiday story of Vuillards.

Family matriarch Junon has gathered the family together for a joyous celebration at the holidays - well, joyous in her mind. She has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her children. Of course, what better time to instill motherly guilt than at the holidays. But getting the clan together is a bit of a chore. Seems that snobby eldest daughter Elizabeth banished her brother Henri from her life and the family four years ago because of, well, in her mind, fraud, but actually it’s more like, just because. The baby boy of the family, Ivan, is in for the surprise of his life jeopardizing his marriage to the lovely Sylvia. While Junon’s grandson Paul is recovering from his unsuccessful suicide. Abel, Junon’s husband, like any good husband and parent with a strong willed wife, takes a back seat to his wife’s wishes. And just for good measure, let’s bring Henri’s Jewish girlfrienA Christmas Carold Faunia home for the holidays.

Set in the Vuillard home, the film is contained and focused, concentrating on the eccentricities and egos of each family member. Written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin, A CHRISTMAS TALE is an interesting character study, with time allowed for each character to unfold at a comfortable pace, exposing their underlying stories and giving real depth to the family and film as a whole, particularly as to the development of Elizabeth. Seems that the two best donors for Junon are her brother Henri and her son Paul which causes her great consternation and angst. Do I make my son suffer to save my mother? Or, do I gleefully make my brother suffer and risk poisoning my mother with his bad blood? Decisions, decisions! Desplechin is a master at subtext and sub-plots and doesn’t disappoint here as he keeps all the balls in the air drawing you ever closer into the “warmth” of the familial bosom.

Highly stylized, Desplechin showcases a variety of music, albeit some seemingly out of place but identifiable to particular familial generations. Using multiple camera techniques, he includes animation, freeze frame, first person narration, third person narration, all lending themselves quite well to the quirkiness of the family. The work of Production Designer Dan Bevan is sumptuous and rich. It is impeccable and beauteous, telling much about the family and each of its principals.

As for the acting, A CHRISTMAS TALE has one of the finest ensemble casts of any film at AFI this year. As comes as no surprise Catherine Deneuve is simply regal as Junon, lording over the minions she calls her children. Deneueve is also very deft with her comedic skills here. Mathieu Amalric just wowed me last year in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and does so again here with all body parts functioning and animated as a disgruntled, alcoholic sibling and son, and steals every scene from every one. He has a self-deprecating nature that commands attention and is enjoyable. His chemistry with Anne Consigny who plays Elizabeth is pitch perfect sibling rivalry. Always a treat when generations of a family get to work together, Deneuve’s real-life daughter Chiarra Mastroianni is enchanting (and sneaky) - even when Junon accidentally forgets to bring her home from shopping.

Have yourself an early Christmas and spend some time with the Vuillards. A CHRISTMAS TALE will welcome you with open arms and lots of comfortable dysfunction.

If you really want some sneaky dysfunction, look no further than A QUIET LITTLE MARRIAGE. My first thoughts after screening this film were that it is connectable, touchable and human as Cy Carter and Mary Elizabeth Ellis, as husband and wife Dax and Olive, draw you into their web of married disappointment, disillusion and, deceit. After screening it yet a second time, those are still my thoughts.

Dax and Olive appear to have it all. Good friends, a happy marriage, a screwed up brother, father with Alzheimer’s. They go along with their day-to-day routine nary saying a word to each other, going through the motions of domestic bliss. But that’s only on the surface because unspoken thoughts and desires loom large, particularly when Olive tells Dax that she wants a baby. Big mistake. The product of a rocky childhood, that’s the last thing he wants. And he was sure he told her that. Or maybe he just thought it. Likewise, Olive was certain she told Dax she wanted a family. Or maybe she just thought she did.

At a silent stalemate, we watch them continue to go through the motions of marriage but with new layers of tacit response. Then one night, thanks to a little too much alcohol, Olive gets inspired into tricking Dax by poking holes in her diaphragm hoping for one of those “oops” pregnancies. But in conversation she makes a remark one day about someone getting pregnant even when using a diaphragm,. Striking fear in Dax, on the QT he starts snooping around and discovers what Olive has done. But, keeping it to himself, he says nothing and instead starts slipping birth control pills into her coffee every morning. With each feeling secure and confident in their own subterfuge, confidence takes hold, their sex life explodes through the roof and then Olive goes to see her ob-gyn.

More than an exquisite acting ensemble, this is an exquisitely charming tacitly textured little gem of a film. Written and directed by Mo Perkins, she calls on her own life experiences and that of her parents and grandparents to bring very real, very human elements to the story. There are touches of her grandfather who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Then there is the tacit silent and outward appearance of happiness as she saw in her parents marriage. And then she has her own marriage and true love to call on and the potential land mines and questions that need to be faced bur are afraid to be faced with “baggage” of your families and past so ingrained in you. Through a technique blending writing and improvision, Perkins and her leads eventually achieved a perfect little marital blend.

As for the acting, if there are any cast members not working in “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” please raise your hands. Already comfortable with each other in a small screen ensemble setting, the transition of Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Cy Carter, Jimmi Simpson, Charlie Day and Lucy DeVito to the big screen is a no-brainer. The well established chemistry of each, particularly that of Carter and Ellis is refreshing and necessary to a story of this nature. For me, the icing on the cake to this little gathering is one of my favorite character actresses, Melanie Lynskey as Olive’s best friend Monique. Pivotal to the storyline, Lynskey’s role is small, necessary and perfectly postured.

Very much guerrilla filmmaking, the film was shot in and around Los Angeles, with everyone calling on friends and friends or friends for use of their apartments, streets, garages, furniture - not to mention help in the production. Notable is the work of Eric Zimmerman, Director of Photography. Crisp, clean, vivid, time lapse imagery is balanced against the day-in-day-out routine of Dax and Olive with visually compelling result serving in a dichotomous nature that helps carry the story.

There is nothing quiet about A QUIET LITTLE MARRIAGE. Speaking volumes, the loudest message is what will Mo Perkins delight us with next.

Betcha thought I wouldn’t get there - my top pick as the single MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILM of the entire Fest. Well, here it is - SKIN.

SKIN is superb filmmaking and storytelling. And I don't think I have used the word "superb" before, or at least recently, to describe a film. I was well familiar with the story of Sandra Laing thanks to its landmark international legal implications some years back and always found it quite interesting and compelling from a human standpoint. To see it so exquisitely told on screen, however, is a privilege.

SKIN is based on the true story of Sandra Laing, a South African girl with White parents born with black skin, something of a horror in the 1950's. On her birth certificate she was identified as being White yet, as still applies in the world today, a piece of paper can mean nothing when a child is being taunted, parents are whispering behind a family’s back in a bigoted, racist world with laws of unequality running rampant in society.

By age 10, Sandra was drummed out of an all White school. Her father Abraham, was a proud man. A stubborn man. A defiant man. Always wondering if Sandra really was his child, it was of the utmost importance to him that everyone know and believe that Sandra was White. So staunch in his beliefs that he took the matter all the way to the high courts in South Africa, calling in genetic experts to explain the phenomena of Sandra. Ultimately prevailing, a new genetic anomaly was unveiled and discussed the world over but more importantly, Sandra was declared White and law was enacted. White parents. White child.

But despite a ruling from the courts, that little piece of paper still didn’t mean anything to neighbors, classmates and boys. Turned away by White boys, Sandra fell in love with Petrus, a local farmer who was Black. And as you can imagine, her father was less than pleased and even more so when she was found to be pregnant. Turning his own daughter into the authorities to rot in jail while she “thought about” what she had done, the family fell apart. Sides were taken. Hostilities grew and Sandra was obliterated from all family records by Abraham. Although now living in Swaziland with Patrus, Sandra was essentially a woman without a country, without a self. With a birth certificate that stated she was White, she was unable to marry the father of her children and was committing a crime by living with him and fathering his children, thus risking losing her own children. Now, Sandra needed to reverse the law her father fought so hard to create.

Written by Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel, Sandra Laing's story is so eloquently and beautifully told it will bring you to tears before the credits roll. But as impeccable the storytelling and translation of Sandra’s story to the screen, the acting will blow you out of the water. Get his film a distribution deal now as Sophie Okonedo should be one of the first in line for an Oscar. Okonedo’s portrayal of Sandra is not just heartfelt, but proud and dignified. The dignity and strength with which she portrays Sandra through her adulthood brings one word to mind - courageous. She draws you into this woman's life, rips your heart apart with what she endures to stand tall and strong. She is like a flowering unfolding showing more and more color as she blooms into a mighty rose. But then take a look at Ella Ramangwane who plays the young Sandra. She is the next Dakota Fanning. Those eyes and that expressive innocent face. She is captivating and is the one that starts the ball rolling, reeling you into the film and Sandra's story.

One of the best performances of his illustrious career, as Abraham Laing, Sam Neill is riveting as the hypocritical ass of a father, And while it was clear to see through Neill's emotions that the take of dad was that he was fighting to prove Sandra's "whiteness" more to exonerate himself and give himself a rationalization of having a dark skinned child while not accusing his wife of cheating on him, it was his own stubborn hypocritical conduct that cost him his daughter, his wife's love and left him to die under a specter of guilt for the selfishness of his conduct. Neill’s portrayal is absolutely brilliant. Alice Krieg was most convincing as Sandra’s mother Sannie Lang, although I note that even in expressing a mother's love and embracing her own child, it was always done with a standoffish tendency, almost forced at times, that fueled the dichotomy of the characters and their true feelings towards Sandra. It was a gifted performance.

Shot in and around Johannesburg from September to November 2007, director Anthony Fabian faced numerous challenges inherent with the region not the least of which was lightening strikes as this particular area has a micro-climate that attracts the greatest number of electrical storms in the world given the amount of metal in the earth in that region. With as much determination to succeed as Sandra Laing has demonstrated throughout her life, Fabian faced 50 locations in 42 days, making the project daunting at best. But then toss in a few mudslides into what we see on screen as the Laing, 77 speaking roles, hundreds of extras and on one occasion close to 1000, plus wrangling hundreds of goats, dogs, chickens, bulldozers and a collapsible set all in one scene, and one has to wonder how Fabian pulled it off. Exquisite lensing showcasing the region is due to not only the bravery of cameramen Dewald Aukema and George Loxton amidst horrific weather conditions, but also due to their ingenuity. Thanks to Loxton one of the film’s most poignant and precious scenes made it onto film. During a windstorm, Loxton saw the beauty of a sunset behind the mountains but given the weather, standing there with a camera to capture it was out of the question. So he put the camera on high sticks or tripod, wrapped himself in plastic that was held down by an assistant and captured a massive lightening strike against a blood red sky. That may be “the money shot” of the film.

And for those of you who may be wondering, the film carries an epilogue with home movies, photos and postscripts about the Laing family. Wait until you see Sandra today! Who says dreams can’t come true. Without a doubt, SKIN is my pick for the MUST SEE FESTIVAL FILM of AFI 2008. But be warned - take tissues, lots and lots of tissues.

Now, I’ve still got my own “films I still must see” list going and at the top of that list are POUNDCAKE and ADAM RESURRECTED, both of which are more than worth a gander. Jeff Goldblum in Paul Schrader's ADAM RESURRECTED

ADAM RESURRECTED stars Jeff Goldbum and Willem Defoe. Based on one of the most acclaimed books in Israeli history, this is the story of Adam Stein, a once celebrated German cabaret performer now living in an experimental insane asylum. Rebellious, outlandish and philandering, Stein takes the asylum by storm, that is until he meets a young boy who thinks he’s a dog. Unlocking horrific memories in Stein’s mind involving a Nazi officer, the story takes a turn and explores the human capacity for renewal and rebirth. Goldblum tackles the role of Stein while Defoe is the Nazi nightmare that haunts him. Directed by Paul Schrader and written by Noah Stollman, ADAM RESURRECTED is not to be missed.

As for POUNDCAKE, if there was ever a recipe for a good comedy, this is it. With Kathleen Quinlan as its star, one is pretty assured of strong performances. Set in Buffalo, New York in the late 1980's, we take a comedic look at another dysfunctional family - the Morgans - Cliff, Carol and their three grown children, Robby, a late night radio DJ, his hypochondriac younger brother Charlie and their adopted sister Brooke. Heading off to their favorite Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, Cliff and Carol drop a bombshell on the kids - after 30 years of marriage they are getting a divorce. Can a family survive its “last” Thanksgiving with civility and decorum or will all hell break loose? With a great comedic premise, great cast and a killer 80's soundtrack,
POUNDCAKE is a film with all the right ingredients.

So, there you have it, just a sampling of what you can expect at AFI FILM FESTIVAL 2008! Running October 30 to November 9, this year the Festival is based at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with screenings taking place at the Arclight and the legendary Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. Don’t let the curtain close on November 9th without taking part in AFI Fest and sampling some of these excellent examples of filmmaking.

Don’t forget to check back with me at throughout the Festival as I’ll have more reviews and interviews as the days go by!! And in the meantime, I’ll see you at the movies.

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