Film Review: AFTER THE STORM (Japan 2016) ***1/2

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AFTER THE STORM.jpgDirector: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writers: Hirokazu Koreeda (original story), Hirokazu Koreeda (screenplay)
Stars: Hiroshi Abe, Yôko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi

Review by Gilbert Seah

 I was totally amazed with the first Hirokazu Kore-eda film I had seen called AFTER LIFE in 2003, which I considered a minor masterpiece. The British magazine did a 5-page article on him and the film hoping the publicity would get the then undistributed film distribution. It did. Kore-eda followed AFTER LIFE with a few other films, most notable being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner in 2013 LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON – again an excellent film.

AFTER THE STORM is not Kore-da at his best but at his mildest filmmaking. Don’t expect the drama of LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON or the imagination of AFTER LIFE. Yet AFTER THE STORM is not without its pleasures. On the surface it is a simple film, a kind look at a loser. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a failed writer, a third-rate detective, and a hardened gambler. As the film’s title seems to suggest, the salient moments of his life have already passed before the beginning of the story. He won an important literary award when he was young, but his promising career vanished into thin air. Now, his father has died and his wife has left him. What he makes as a private detective, he loses on gambling and can barely pay his child support. After the death of his father, his aging mother Yoshiko (Kilin Kiki) and his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) seem to be moving on with their lives. Renewing contact with his initially distrusting family, Ryota struggles to take back control of his existence and to find a place in the life of his young son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Ryoto seems resigned to his position on the sidelines of the boy’s life. But Ryota works with another young man, his private-eye assistant, who fills in the position of his absent son.

The audience is left to judge Ryoto. Ryoto is a man, not without vices, but still honest man despite dishonest doings. And he is still a handsome man, besides his age, able to attract the opposite sex, as in the old classmate he meets at the beginning of the film.

Thefilm’s climax takes place one night when a typhoon strikes. The broken family is forced to spend the night together at Ryota’s mother’s home. The ensuing interaction that is both bittersweet and tender forms the film’s highlight. “I never want to grow up to be like you.”, the son says. “I will always love them. They are my family.” The father says at one point. These are the sensitivities always prevalent in Kore-eda’s films that make them memorable. Great performances here come not only from Abe but from Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s mother, who is so funny she steals every scene she is in. And as in all Kore-eda’s films, there are a lot of scenes of trains. Kore-eda has said that this film is based on his personal experience of the death of his parents.

Also interesting is the observation of the ex-couple’s arguments. Ryota argues with his ex-wife over seeing his son and child support. In this film, typical of Japanese films, there is argument with reasoning without any shouting or display of cheap theatrics that are common to European and American films.

There is a beautiful shot of a delicious braised pork brewing stew at one point in the film when Yoshiko tells her son: “A stew needs time for the flavours to sink in; so do people.” The same applies in AFTER THE STORM – patience is needed for the audience to savour the pleasures of Kore-eda’s film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwJcIoFuhto

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Film Review: SHADOWS OF PARADISE

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shadows_of_paradise.jpgDirector: Sebastian Lange
Writer: Sebastian Lange

Review by Gilbert Seah

SHADOWS OF PARADISE is a not-your-usual documentary about Transcendental Meditation. It answers the question how do TM’s adherents continue when a spiritual luminary dies.

With intimate access to two of Transcendental Meditation’s new leaders – iconic filmmaker David Lynch and dedicated disciple Bobby Roth – director Sebastian Lange documents the Movement’s metamorphosis following the passing of its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Having himself grown up within the Movement, director Sebastian Lange approaches his subject through an introspective and essayistic lens, seeking to reconcile TM’s present-day incarnation with the teachings and practices that have shaped his worldview. The film documents the star-studded galas hosted by Lynch’s Manhattan-based foundation to a perilous cliffside cave in Madhya Pradesh.

Word of warning: The inspiration of the teachings propaganda-d in this film originated from Guru Dev. Guru Dev lived in a distant cave, north of India and dismissed normal life for meditation. So, this film might not be for everyone. In fact many will likely laugh at the film’s teachings, so if you are not with open mind, it is best to skip reading this review as well as the film – no insult to the person involved. Even if one is of open mind, there is a lot to take and believe in this film. Before reading this review, please bear in mind that this reviewer is no proponent of transcendental meditation (TM). This reviewer is a nonbeliever of TM, but will try to have an open mind in reviewing the film and in the examination of the subject.

Director David Lynch is a champion of the cause of TM. He has made MULHOLLAND DRIVE, a film critically acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time. It is a film that is as weird as it is brilliant and covers multiple layers of consciousness. But I wonder now if Lynch has not lost some of his marbles. His hairstyle in the film – a streaked white coiffe does not help his looks either. Other celebrities involved whose presence are seen on screen include Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Lynch has a special ‘Lynch Foundation’ that collects money and donations for the cause.
Director Lange is quick to point out that TM is neither a religion, cult, government or industry. But he fails to define what TM really is.

For a film that champions TM, there is little about what TM actually is. It is only near the end of the film when the audiences sees a practical illustration of TM as executed by both Roth and Lynch. The director of the film Sebastian Lange is also a believer. His goal, which forms the climax of the film is to understand TM as well. His quest is to search for this remote cave that both Maharashi and Guru Dev spent years in. But it is reputed that the cave is swamped with bees and many who have ventured there have ended up in hospital.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/184505918
 
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Top 10 Films of 2016

The time has come round again to put together the list of the year’s best films.  2016 has been an exceptionally good year for films, especially in the Foreign language Film category.

Here are my BEST 10 of 2016 in order, with  short description of each.

by Gilbert Seah

1. TONY ERDMANN (Germany 2016) Directed by Maren Ade

Touted too as the BEST FILM of 2016 by the SIGHT & SOUND International Critics Poll, this 160-minute lengthy German comedy (the Germans are not known for comedy) is a satire by director/writer Ade on her German countryfolk.  Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a retired piano teacher, a divorcee who delights in persistent pranks and impersonations that alienate (and occasionally alarm) everyone in his German suburb.  He pays an unexpected visit to his corporate executive daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), playing parks and showing up whenever she least expects.  A brilliant piece of drama and comedy and culminates with Huller singing the full song “The Greatest Love of All” which got a standing ovation midway during the film’s creeping at Cannes.  He teaches Ines again how to laugh and love again while the audience gets a subtle message of what life is all about.   (This film opens January in Toronto.)

2. JULIETA (Spain 2016) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar’s talky film based on three short stories from the book Runaway by Alice Munro with homage to Patricia Highsmith.   JULIETA stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as older and younger versions of the film’s protagonist, Julieta, alongside Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti, Michelle Jenner and his favourite Rossy de Palma playing a nosy maid, who has one eye larger than the other.  The film is marked by Almodovar’s touches like his brilliant use of colour.  JULIETA is a very controlled film, absorbing from start to finish with a very brilliant ending.

3. L’AVENIR (THINGS TO COME) (France/Germany 2016) Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve 

Director Hansen-Løve’s protagonist undergoes a major change in life in the midst of the movie.  Nathalie (another excellent performance by Isabelle Huppert) is a dedicated and demanding teacher, wife, and mother whose life is jolted when her husband of many years leaves her for another woman.  As her life slowly crumbles (she loses her publications as well), Nathalie slowly adapts using her background in philosophy.  Nathalie is not as assured and confident as she is in the past.  Her black, obsess cat, Pandora stands also as a metaphor for her life.  But Nathalie, at least finds an unlikely friend in a former student, the radical young communist Fabien (Roman Kolinka).   The musical score ranging from classical (Schubert) to folk (Woody Guthrie) is marvellous.  As in all of Hansen-Løve’s films, L’AVENIR is an intelligent, handsomely mounted production that is an entertaining and insightful look on life and living.

4. ZOOTOPIA (USA 2016) Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

ZOOTOPIA follows the dentures of a bunny cop as she save her animal world.  The film works on many levels so that both kids and adults can relate to the movie.  The film also reflects on major issues in America such as racism and the police system.  But most important of all, the filmmakers have a keen sense of humour that is reflected in a very smart and hilarious film.  The animation is also superb.

5. IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten) (Norway/Sweden/Denmark 2014)

Directed by Hans Petter Moland

This is my rare pick – a Scandinavian commercial thriller that is a cross between TAKEN and FARGO.  This is a very dark violent comedy thriller that asks the question:  Can an ordinary man kill a drug lord?  The answer is ‘yes’, if (he is) pushed beyond the limit.  Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) is a snow plough driver somewhere in Norway.  He learns that his son, Ingvar has died, supposedly of a heroin overdose.   Nils knows his son was no addict (his wife believes otherwise, though) and starts his own personal private investigation after his beaten up son’s friend confesses to Nils that his son was unknowingly involved in a drug delivery.   Soon Nils finds out the local drug lord, known as ‘The Count’ (Pal Sverre Hagen) is behind the crime.  Director Moland spends screen time on both Nils and the villain.  The segment where the count and his ex-wife argue over their son’s custody and eating of ‘fruit loops’ is priceless.  I have watched the segment five times and still love it.  A very, very dark thriller like the winter of Norway when the film is set.

6. INDIGNATION (USA 2015) Directed by James Schamus

The pleasure of the film is not in the plot but in the writing.   Based on the Philip Roth novel, excellence can only be expected.  A working class Jewish student, Marcus (Logan Lerman), leaves Newark, New Jersey to attend a small college in Ohio. There, he experiences a sexual awakening after meeting the elegant and wealthy Olivia (Sarah Gadon). Later he ends up confronting the school’s dean (Tracy Letts) over the role of religion in academic life.  Logan Lerman displays acting capability and eloquence as in the film’s best scene with Dean Caudwell debating Bertrand Russell’s Christianity.   Shamus has now proven himself as a superb writer and director.  INDIGNATION is a thinking man’s film that is smart, entertaining and funny. 

7. LA TETE HAUTE (STANDING TALL) (France 2015)

Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot

LA TETE HAUTE often has the camera stationed in a set-up in which a confrontation occurs.  The actors have their role plays and they go at it, ensemble-style.  The result is a compelling watch, with a more realistic feel as the scene looks totally unscripted, though it may not be.  The camera focuses primarily on the actors, often with closeups on the reactions of dialogue that take place.   Bercot allows the audience to root for the hot-tempered delinquent called Malony (Rod Paradot).  Bercot shows that the process of rehabilitation is long and difficult but not impossible.  Bercot (who co-wrote the script) attributes more effort by those helping the boy than put in by the boy himself.  As the adage goes: “It takes a village to rear a child.”  Besides the boy, the supporting characters are all equally interesting.  The mother, who is herself a delinquent, loses her two younger boys to social services.  The boy’s councillor was himself a delinquent, younger on and got this job believing in the system.  And there is the judge, magnificently played by Deneuve with all her regality.   The scene in which she stretches out her hand to the boy in both desperation and sympathy is the film’s most touching moment.  But director Bercot takes her film one step further.  She inserts more incidents than are normally found in a family drama.  Included is a car crash, expertly shot and a home abduction.  This is an extremely moving film about life and hardship – and how everyone faces his or her own at one time or another.

8. HELL OR HIGH WATER (USA 2016) Directed by David MacKenzie

The film begins with an exciting bank robbery.  The bank is robbed by two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and the recently out-of-jail Tanner (Ben Foster).  It is a case of Good Crook, Bad Crook variation of Good Cop, Bad Cop.  Toby, the good crook needs the money for payments on the house his children has inherited from his recently deceased mother.   The film does not have one main protagonist but three.  Toby appears to be the main one, but his volatile brother and the retiring ranger after them are also given due attention.  Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is the most interesting of the three, a wise-cracking, gruff and smart veteran who constantly cracks racist jokes at his indian deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).   The film is well performed by everyone especially Bridges who turns out an Oscar Winning performance.  MacKenzie knows how to create excitement.  The camera is placed, for example in the getaway car, all jittery but capturing the desperation of escaping the cops.  The shootout scene at the end of the film is also meticulously staged.  The film also contains a superb climax – a verbal showdown between Toby and Marcus.  The music by Australian actor, singer song-writer Nick Cave is a pleasure, also adding atmosphere and mood to the film.  An excellent film all round.

9. HACKSAW RIDGE (USA/Australia 2016)  Directed by Mel Gibson

HACKSAW RIDGE is a true story, bravely told, inspiring as well, set in World War II featuring the most unlikely of heroes – a pacifist who refuses to carry a rifle.  Not only does the film boast inspired direction by Gibson, but it also contains perhaps the best performance of the year by a young actor, the most recent SPIDER-MAN, Andrew Garfield – if not the best performance of his career.  The true story of medic, Private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds.  Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life — without firing a shot — to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.  The battle scenes – with heads exploding; guts pouring out; dismembered bodies and wounds infested with maggots and rats are not easy ones to watch. 

10. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (USA 2016) Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

There is an excellent segment at the start of the film that perfectly sums up the character of the protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck).  A handyman, Lee has just finished fixing the dirty toilet plumbing of one of the apartments in the building he looks after.  The woman asks if it is ok for her to give him a tip.  He thinks the tip is a form of advice she is about to give him for perhaps a mistake he did in his job instead of the monetary reward she intended.  Lee is shown here as a hard-working well meaning person with extremely low self-esteem.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s new film after a long absence since his impressive debut YOU CAN COUNT ON ME followed by MARGARET.  The new film follows Lee, a reclusive handyman who must face his painful past when he returns to his Massachusetts hometown after the sudden death of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  The beauty of Lonergan’s film is the way his drama unfolds.  He does not rely on cheap theatrics, melodrama or dramatic monologues to get his points across.  In tandem, Affleck delivers a quiet, disciplined yet forceful performance, undoubtedly the best of his career.  The film’s best segments have the two arguing with each there.  The film alternates between sad and wonderful.   It is one of the best gut wrenching films about how a person deals with death. 

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Film Review: QUAND ON A 17 ANS (BEING 17) (France 2016) ****

being_17QUAND ON A 17 ANS (BEING 17) (France 2016) ****
Directed by Andre Téchiné

Starring: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila

Review by Gilbert Seah

Directed by Téchiné with a script he wrote in collaboration with Céline Sciamma, the film follows the romantic and sexual awakening of two seventeen year old boys as their initial animosity, expressed in violence, morphs into love. For the not-so French literate, Being 17 borrows its title from the second half-line of the first verse of Roman, (1870) by Arthur Rimbaud: On n’est pas sérieux quand on a dix-sept ans.

This is not their first collaboration. Téchiné and Sciamma have worked on several films before including the quite similar and excellent LES ROSEAUX SAUVAGES (WILD REEDS) in 1994 also about young gay love.

The film unfolds in 3 trimesters (three French school terms in a year). The first occurs in winter and the final after summer. The protagonist is 17-year old Damien, a smart (good in math) and sensitive (good in poetry) who lives with his doctor mother and absent father, Nathan a fighter pilot abroad. They lead a relatively comfortable life in a small town located in a valley among the mountains of the Hautes-Pyrénées. Mother and son miss Nathan who comes home occasionally when the military allows.

In high school, Damien gets picked on by Thomas, a classmate, who trips him in the middle of class for no apparent reason. From then on there are constant altercations between them while playing sports and in the schoolyard. Both are outsiders at school chosen last for sports teams. In order to protect himself, Damien takes self-defense classes with Paulo, an ex-military family friend. The film goes from there with the story turning into young love – with raging hormones expected of youth at the age of 17.

The main story is supported by significantly moving subplots about Thomas’ adoptive mother bearing a child and Damien’s father’s death, the catastrophe that eventually brings the two boys together.

The change of seasons reflect the sexual awakening of the boys. When the boys are in school the first trimester is set in winter, their sexual desires are as if, hidden in the cold. As spring approaches, Damien’s sexual attraction towards Thomas awakens. An excellent segment also occurs later in the film when the two study Latin and discuss the difference between desire and need. Desire is natural but superfluous and pretentious, the reason Thomas tripped Damien in the classroom as he deemed Damien’s poem as open pretentiousness.

The shooting of the film in the winter in the mountains of the Hautes-Pyrénées makes stunning scenery. And the sight of the small town from the mountain top, as shown by Thomas to Damien’s mother is breathtaking.

For a director over 70, Téchiné captures the vibrance of youth. This can be observed best in the scenes in Damien’s school as the kids goof around, take part in sports or take lessons in the classroom. It is also rare in films that both adults and youth are treated as intelligent. In fact, every character is intelligent enough to have a valid say in the story. BEING 17 is both a moving and enlightening entertainment that marks once again another superior work from Téchiné.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOSPninRQwI

 

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Movie Review: WE’LL SEE IF WE DROWN (2016)

  MOVIE POSTERWE’LL SEE IF WE DROWN, 20min., France, Comedy/Crime
Directed by Hugo Becker

Mickey, Voltaire, and K.O are twenty-five. Mickey works at the butcher’s shop. Voltaire’s a con man in training. K.O fancies himself a boxer. All three have decided to stop eating pasta and skip town. But that’s where things get complicated: when you want something, you got to go get it.

Shown at the September 2016 COMEDY FEEDBACK Film Festival

Movie Review by Kierston Drier

Everyone loves an anti-hero, whether you are watching a scripted show, reality TV or even the news, people naturally look for the bad guys. We’ll See If We Drown, a French smash-hit directed by Hugo Becker, is a story about three such delinquents. Mickey, Voltaire and K.O are three twenty-something pseudo criminals up to no good, with plans to rob the Butcher shop that Mickey works at and skip town to go fishing.

High-quality, high-concept and high-voltage, this film is set at a lightening fast pace that can easy leave a slow-reader stumbling to keep up with the English subtitles, but that is no reason to avoid it. This film has genius undertones layered under slapstick-style high jinks. Our anti-heroes are undeniable assholes- they lack compassion for the people they damage in order to get what they want, they are each individually narcissistic, misguided and vice-driven and yet there is a note of sympathy in all of them. To an audience conforming the the nine-to-five white-picket fence “American Dream” these three represent who we all may be on the inside if we followed only our momentary whims and desires. And each character has their soft spot- a love of fishing or a family pet, that makes them remarkably human and, in their own perverse way, likeable.

This comedy may not sit well with a North American audience, use to a more linear story style, or a less condensed plot- but this reviewer would argue that a true film-lover should experience foreign films as frequently as they can. It is our deviation from the cinematic comfort zone that allows us to learn more about the wonderful world of film. We’ll See If We Drown has elements of slapstick, elements of irony and elements of melodrama. It also has undertones of anarchical philosophy, symbology and nihilism that will tantalize the astute academically minded. Check out this film! It’s a riot for any viewer who loves watching the bad guys do all the bad things.

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Movie Review: THE CHAMPION (2016)

  MOVIE POSTERTHE CHAMPION, 17min, USA, Documentary
Directed by Patrick McGowan

A former Iraqi boxing champion, Estaifan Shilaita overcomes tremendous hardships as he builds a special bond with his family and taxi cab customers in Chicago.

Shown at the September 2016 DOCUMENTARY FEEDBACK Film Festival

Movie Review by Kierston Drier

The Champion, a powerful short film hailing from the USA, directed by Patrick McGowan, is the story of Estaifan Shilaita, former Iraqi boxing champion turned taxi driver. The story follows Estaifan in his pursuit for a better life for himself in Chicago. Full of stunning re-enactments, brilliant cinematography, powerful composition and above all, breath taking humanity in its’, The Champion is all at once heartbreaking and humorous, compelling and inspiring.

Estaifan may seem on the outside like any other metropolitan taxi driver- friendly, smiling, overtly chatty. But under his ever-calm and ever beaming face is a story of rich history and deep roots. Achieving great fame in his youth in Iraq as a light weight boxer, Estaifan fled to find a better life for himself. He fell in love in Greece and took his new wife to Chicago under refugee status, where they began raising their four children under the American dream.

This film boasts excellent production value, rivaling any highly acclaimed feature. But it is not the visual beauty of the film that makes it sing- it is the honesty, the heart and humanity of Estaifan’s life. His resilience and happiness in the face of conflict is nothing less than a testament to human triumph. As a film, The Champion, glosses over the political and economic tensions that propelled our hero’s to flee Iraq. It glosses over the struggles a young refugee family must have faced in a new country. The film only briefly touches on the pain of loss that Estaifan and his wife feel, at having spent nearly forty years in the USA without ever being able to access their family in Iraq. It glosses over all of these things so that is can focus on joy. For Estaifan’s life is so utterly full of his own encapsulating joy it is tangible. The audience cannot help but be uplifted by it. And it makes this film spectacular.

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Film Review: MISS HOKUSAI (Japan 2014-2015) ***

miss_hokusai_poster.jpgMISS HOKUSAI (Japan 2014-2015) ***
Directed by Keiichi Hara

Starring: Yutaka Matsushige, Anne Watanabe, Erica Lindbeck

Review by Gilbert Seah

The Japanese animated feature MISS HOKUSAI is set in 1814 in Edo,where peasants, samurai, merchants, nobles, artists, and courtesans live together in apparent harmony. It is also just the time that marked the end of the samurai era when Edo was renamed Tokyo – an important period for the Japanese, that unfolds here for the education of the westerners.
The artist is the film’s subject.

Accomplished artist Tetsuzo spends his days creating astounding works, from a giant Dharma portrayed on a 180-metre-wide sheet of paper to a pair of sparrows painted on a single grain of rice. Short-tempered and with no interest for saké or money, he (Hokusai) would charge a fortune for any job he is unwilling to undertake. But it is his daughter, O-Ei who is sane and completes the work her father leaves unfinished.

As all of Edo flocks to see the work of the revered painter Hokusai, the artist’s daughter O-Ei toils inside his studio, creating masterful portraits and erotic sketches that — sold under her father’s name — are coveted by aristocrats and journeyman printmakers alike. Shy and reserved in public, in the studio O-Ei is brash and uninhibited, but despite this fiercely independent spirit she struggles under the domineering influence of her father and is ridiculed for lacking the life experience that she is attempting to portray in her art. This film is her story (the young woman behind one of history’s most famous artists) and it shows her coming-of-age in a precarious and difficult situation.

Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, MISS HOKUSAI is carefully crafted animation, similar to the type Ghibli Studio produces. The animation is impressive especially during the fire and water (very difficult to animate) scenes but the film lacks dramatic drive. The characters often appear just coasting around, like the objects of a painting. The fact that a lot of mythical elements are introduced does not help the film’s credibility either.

The film was first screened during the Real Asian film festival in Toronto in 2015 and is finally getting a screening run at the TIFF Bell Lighbox. There are two versions – I saw it in the original subtitled version. The other is the inferior dubbed version.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nj1rwo_d-s

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