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DVD Reviews for 6/8: "Sweet Fancy Moses!"

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic has so many new titles to discuss this week that he is posting his piece a few days early in order to make room for them all.

Because his reputation as one of the great filmmakers of all time is so solidly held by film fans around the world, it is a little startling to discover that Italian director Sergio Leone only made seven feature films in the three decades between his 1960 debut, "Il Coloso di Rodi", and his death in 1989. Not only that, only two of them (1971’s "Duck, You Sucker" and 1984’s "Once Upon a Time in America") were made after the Sixties. However, when he did get around to making a film, he made sure that they were worth the wait-over time, his stories grew increasingly operatic in scale and so did his vision. One film of his would contain the amounts of humor, violence, jaw-dropping action and flat-out weirdness that you would find in three or four normal movies. This was why he was able to maintain his reputation as an artist despite the increasingly lengthy gaps between projects-like Stanley Kubrick before him and Terrence Malick after him, people knew that a Leone film would be worth the wait.

Speaking of waits, Leone buffs have waiting for years for Leone’s relatively slender film output to get its proper due on DVD. A few years ago, there were decent releases of “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time In America” and an acclaimed 2003 theatrical re-release of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” that paved the way for an equally impressive DVD special edition and the hope at the time among fans is that this renewed interest would lead to special editions of his other films, which had either been issued in bare-bones editions (“A Fistful of Dollars” and “For A Few Dollars More,” the first two installments of his “Dollars” trilogy of spaghetti westerns) or not at all (“Il Coloso di Rodi” and “Duck, You Sucker”). Although there were always rumors that such DVDs were on the way–and they did appear in foreign markets–a combination of production delays and studio buyouts kept them out of the hands of the viewing public. Happily, with the release of the MGM box set “The Sergio Leone Anthology,” a set that collects “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For A Few Dollars More,” the previously-released special edition of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Duck, You Sucker,” that long wait is finally over and even the most hard-to-please fans should be ecstatic over the treasures to be found on this 8-disc behemoth.

Among those fans, there is usually a debate about what his best film was-it usually comes down to a choice between "Once Upon a Time in the West" or "Once Upon a Time in America". (Personally, I lean towards the latter.) When it comes to people choosing their favorite Leone work, though-the one that they can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of it-the answer is inevitably "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", his 1966 spaghetti western epic that marked the conclusion of the "Dollars" trilogy. The film opens with an extended prologue introducing us to each of the three main characters. Tuco (Eli Wallach) is "The Ugly", a career criminal who is wanted all over the place for various crimes against humanity. He has paired up with Joe (Clint Eastwood), "The Good" (possibly because while he kills dozens of people as well, he generally only kills bad guys), for a scam in which Joe will "capture" Tuco to collect the hefty reward and then save him from execution at the last second by cutting the noose with a bullet. (The partnership comes to an untimely end when Tuco picks a bad time to suggest that he deserves a larger percent of the rewards since it is he taking the bigger risks.) "The Bad" is Setenza (Lee Van Cleef), a totally amoral monster who will kill anyone without compunction, provided that either someone has paid him for the job or that it will profit him in some way.

At the same time, $200,000 in gold coins is stolen and buried by a thief going under an assumed name. Coincidentally, Tuco and Joe come across the dying man, who is calling himself Bill Carson, in the desert (where Tuco, who has gotten the drop on Joe, is slowly torturing him to death) and tells them of the gold, which is in a grave in a nearby cemetery. Inevitably, he separately tells Tuco the location of the cemetery and Joe the name of the grave it is located in just before dying, so Tuco and Joe are forced to team up. Unfortunately, Setenza knows about the gold and that "Bill Carson" knows its location and when Tuco comes into town assuming that name, Setenza decides to cut himself in as well.

This is a fairly slender plot-one that could have easily been told in a typical episode of "Rawhide"-but one of Leone’s inspired jokes in the film is that no matter how hard the amoral, antisocial criminals try to mind their own business, they find themselves constantly swept up in the currents of history by the war going in around them. At various times, for example, they each find themselves posing as both Confederates and Yankees. At first, such impersonations are merely pragmatic but eventually, Joe finds himself compelled to act in his own particular idiom: when he comes across an ongoing battle in which opposing troops slaughter each other in order to possess a crucial bridge, he simply blows the thing to pieces in order to bring the fighting to a halt.

The film is also stretched out to accommodate the extended set-pieces that Leone would become famous for (thanks in no small part to the legendary score composed by Ennio Morricone). While many of them are somewhat nonsensical in strict narrative terms, they are masterpieces of sheer kinetic filmmaking and can be enjoyed simply on that level. The most famous moment, of course, is the climactic graveyard shootout in which Joe, Tuco and Setenza find themselves facing off one last time with the gold going to the winner. Stretched out to the breaking point , Leone milks the tension to such a degree that even if you have seen the film a dozen times before, you will still be on the edge of you seat from the suspense.

Although Clint Eastwood became a movie star through his appearances in the "Dollars" films-and he is usually the first person that people think of when they talk about the film-it is a little bit of a shock to discover that his character is probably the least interesting and least detailed of the three (possibly a reason why this marked his last collaboration with Leone). He isn’t bad in the film-he is as mythic and iconic here as he would ever be in his long career-but he is the good guy and a film like this tends to live or die on the strength of its bad guys. With his beady eyes and hateful demeanor, Van Cleef is as vile and monstrous as any villain in the history of the Western genre (he is the kind of guy who shoots women and children without blinking an eye) and Wallach is absolutely hilarious as the shamelessly greedy and self-centered Tuco. In a way, he is a little like the great Daffy Duck-he is so completely amoral and driven by his lust for money and power that he becomes strangely lovable. He also gets the film’s best line, which could serve as the perfect epigram to describe Leone’s films: "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!"

Just because I have gone on at some length about “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” this is not to suggest in any way that the other selections in this collection are somehow inferior–in fact, each of the other titles here would easily be the pick hit in any normal collection of films. With its fusion of the basic plot of Akira Kurosawa’s darkly funny “Yojimbo” (a smart gunslinger manipulates a situation involving two warring factions so that they wind up destroying each other while he winds up making a lot of money for his “help”), a level of surreal violence that hadn’t been seen in films of this type up to that time (including the bit where one bullet seemingly kills three bad guys) and the instantly iconic presence of Clint Eastwood (in the film that helped transform him from a TV second banana to an international superstar), “A Fistful of Dollars” is an enormously entertaining work that transcends its genre trappings to become the kind of film that winds up affecting virtually everyone who encounters it. Sandwiched between two acknowledged classics, “For A Few Dollars More,” in which Eastwood, once again as the Man With No Name, is now a bounty hunter after gang leader Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) who is preparing a million-dollar heist, is often overlooked in the rush to praise the other films in the trilogy but it has plenty to recommend on its own–chiefly the inclusion of the always-sinister Lee Van Cleef as a rival of Eastwood’s who has personal reasons for wanting to apprehend Indio himself. (There is also an amusing supporting turn from legendary wildman Klaus Kinski as one of Indio’s creepy cohorts.)

“Duck, You Sucker,” in which IRA bomber James Coburn and Mexican revolutionary Rod Steiger team up to use their talents at thievery and explosives to help the locals fight the powers-that-be, is usually dismissed as his weakest feature and remembered solely for being his last Western. Seeing it now in its full-length version, it clearly deserves a place at the table with Leone’s other masterworks for the way that it starts off as a near-parody of the “Dollars” films and then slowly but surely develops into something that is darker and more mature than anything he had previously attempted up to that point. In fact, now that it can be seen in the context of his entire career, it now comes across as a bridge between the pop giddiness of the “Dollars” films and the more somber and adult tone that he would utilize in “Once Upon a Time In America.”

Each of the four films in “The Sergio Leone Anthology” has been presented with a bounty of supplemental materials to go along with the restored picture and sound. “A Fistful of Dollars” has a commentary track from Leone biographer Christopher Frayling, an interview with Clint Eastwood, a featurette that takes viewers back to the locations where Leone shot the film four decade earlier and, most intriguingly, a prologue featuring Harry Dean Stanton that was shot specifically for the film’s lone network television screening by cult director Monte Hellman (a sequence that apparently made such an impact after that broadcast that many fans have assumed that it was always a part of the film). “For a Few Dollars More” includes another commentary from Frayling and another Eastwood interview and also includes a featurette comparing Leone’s original edit of the film with the recut American version. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is basically a re-release of the special edition that was released a couple of years ago–the extras ported over include a commentary track from critic Richard Schickel, deleted scenes and documentaries on Leone, composer Ennio Morricone (who contributed one of the all-time great scores), the making of the film and its eventual restoration. “Duck, You Sucker” brings back Frayling for another commentary and includes featurettes on Leone’s work as a political filmmaker, the various versions that have floated around over the years and the creation of a museum exhibit dedicated to Leone and his work.

An MGM Home Entertainment release. $89.98.


ABBY–THE BLACK EXORCIST EDITION (CF Releasing. $14.99): I am not too sure about the legality of this release of the infamous 1974 blaxsploitation epic–I’ve never heard of this particular distributor before and the film itself has been stuck in grey-market limbo since Warner Brothers successfully got an injunction against it for being an especially egregious rip-off of “The Exorcist.” That said, the film itself is pretty hilarious in its sheer awfulness and I guess that if enough people pick up this release, it might inspire DVD’s of such other suppressed classics as “Blackenstein,” “Bloctor Bleckyl & Blister Blyde,” “The Blblob” and “The Creature from the White Lagoon.”

THE 4 MUSKETEERS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): This 2005 French epic is yet another romp through the Alexandre Dumas classic and while I haven’t seen it yet, the notion of the goddess Emmanuelle Beart running around wielding a sword is an image potent enough to make me want to check it out as soon as possible.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: EXTRA FRILLS EDITION (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.98): Of course, if the sight of a sword-brandishing Beart proves to be too much for my delicate constitution, I can always bring myself back to Earth with the images of Terrence Stamp–General Zod to you puny Earthlings–in drag that are seen throughout this popular Australian comedy about a trio of drag queens (Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) who travel to a remote town in the Australian outback to put on a show.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE SESSIONS BAND: LIVE IN DUBLIN (Sony Home Video. $14.98): The Boss, along with the extended group of musicians with whom he recorded his acclaimed “We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions” CD, hit Ireland in a concert video that mixes performances of songs made famous by the legendary protest singer (“We Shall Overcome,” “Jesse James” and “Pay Me My Money Down”) along with selections from his own considerable catalogue (including “Atlantic City,” “Highway Patrolman” and “Blinded By The Light.”)

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (REMIX) (Image Entertainment. $19.99): In a move that seems destined to outrage cinema purists and confuse everyone else, director David Lee Fisher has taken the 1919 classic of German expressionism–generally regarded as the first true horror film–scanned the striking sets via computer and inserted contemporary actors (including “Pan’s Labyrinth” alumnus Doug Jones) into the mix in what is being called a “remix” instead of a remake. I suppose this is intriguing on a conceptual level but, like the Giorgio Moroder refitting of “Metropolis” from a couple of decades ago, anyone with even the slightest interest in this would be better off seeking a decent copy of the original.

CHIPS: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Turner Home Entertainment. $39.98): Tight pants, gleaming teeth, moralistic speeches and elaborate car crashes that never seem to injure anyone–what more could you possibly want from a 1970's-era cop show such as the Erik Estrada extravaganza collected here? Well, how about guest appearances from the likes of Jim Backus, Phyllis Diller, Edward James Olmos and the immortal Robbie “Cousin Oliver” Rist? Still not enough? Well, the hell with you then.

THE DEAN MARTIN-JERRY LEWIS COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): This follow-up to last year’s collection brings together five of the last films (although their 1954 efforts “Three Ring Circus” and “Money From Home”–the latter being their first color film and their sole excursion into 3-D--are mysteriously absent) made by the legendary comedy duo before their acrimonious break-up in 1956. “Living It Up” (1954) is a remake of the Carole Lombard classic “Nothing Sacred” and features Jerry as a schnook who thinks he is dying of radiation poisoning, Janet Leigh as a reporter who turns him into a public sensation and Dean as the doctor who knows the truth about Jerry’s condition. “You’re Never Too Young” (1955) is a remake of “The Major and the Minor” and has Jerry as a goof who disguises himself as a 12-year-old boy to escape the clutches of thug Raymond Burr and Dean is the exasperated music teacher who winds up contributing both assistance and a number of songs to the proceedings. “Artists and Models” (1955) is a romp in which Dean plays a struggling cartoonist who begins using the elaborate dreams of roommate Jerry as inspiration for his work and some hilarious sight gags courtesy of director Frank Tashlin. “Pardners” (1956) is a silly comedy-western in which Jerry plays a tenderfoot trying to follow in the footsteps of his father and Dean is the rodeo star who has to protect him when he is mistaken for a real gunslinger. (This is the one that ironically concluded with the two breaking character to assure audiences that they would continue to make movies for a long time even though they had already pretty much broken up by that point.) “Hollywood Or Bust” (1956), their last film, features Dean and Jerry as mismatched types who wind up sharing a ride to L.A. together–Dean wants to make a lot of money along the way in Vegas and Jerry wants to meet Anita Ekberg (who supplies a key portion of the title all by herself). Despite being made under acrimonious circumstances (Dean and Jerry were barely speaking to each other at this point), this last title is my favorite of the ones collected here–the climactic sequence of Jerry wreaking havoc at Paramount is worth the purchase price all by itself.

FAIL-SAFE (Warner Home Video. $19.95): Originally aired on live television in 2000, this was a gripping remake of the Cold War classic about the repercussions of an accidental nuclear strike and features a lot of good actors (including George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, James Cromwell and Don Cheadle) going through their paces under the expert direction of Stephen Frears. Besides, as the late, great Mike Royko once said of the original film, at least it has a happy ending.

THE FALL GUY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): Tight pants, gleaming teeth, moralistic speeches and elaborate stunt sequences that never seem to injure anyone–what more could you want from a 1980's-era action series such as this popular favorite with Lee Majors as a two-fisted stuntman who has a side gig as a two-fisted bail bondsman? How about a theme song sung by Majors himself, the presence of one of the era’s blonde Heathers–Thomas, for those keeping score at home–as the assistant who winds up doing most of her work in a low-cut blouse and an episode featuring the era’s other blonde Heather–Locklear–as a guest star?

FANTASTIC FOUR–EXTENDED CUT (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.95): 20 extra minutes have been added to this inexplicably popular 2005 comic book adaptation–which is hitting stores just before the theatrical release of the inevitable sequel–but unless the additions consist entirely of Invisible Girl Jessica Alba both visible and showering, I can’t see how they could make much of a difference.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE: SPECIAL EDITION (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.95): Now here is a reissue that I can get behind–Richard Fleischer’s goofy 1966 sci-fi extravaganza about a miniaturized medical crew (including Stephen Boyd and Raquel Welch) traveling through the bloodstream of a scientist while racing against the clock to save his life before they suddenly expand and kill him. Yeah, the film is silly and wildly implausible, even by sci-fi standards, but it is so much fun to watch that few will likely notice the flaws (or they will be too busy gawking at Welch to care.) After a previous bare-bones release, Fox has finally given the film the special edition treatment with a set featuring a number of extras dedicated to the still-impressive special effects. For additional retro thrills, this week also sees Fox releasing the nonsensically-titled “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Global Warming Edition.”

FIRED! (Shout Factory! $24.99): Actress Annabelle Gurwitch wasn’t the first performer to be fired by Woody Allen–Christopher Walken, Emily Lloyd and Cosmo Kramer are just a couple of the thespians to have been let go over the years–but instead of just crying about it, she was inspired to produce this slight-but-amusing semi-documentary in which she gets a number of her show-biz pals (including Tim Allen, Andy Dick and Fred Willard) to talk about their own experiences with getting the axe.

GHIDORAH–THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER/INVASION OF THE ASTRO-MONSTER (Classic Media. $19.95 each): Monster movie fans will delight in these two DVDs featuring restored versions of a couple of semi-classic Godzilla extravaganzas in sets that feature both the Japanese and American versions of the films, commentaries from experts in the field of Japanese fantasy cinema and glimpses at the cheerfully lurid posters and trailers used to sell them to the public.

H.O.T.S. (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $9.98): This bit of late-1970's sexploitation features, if I recall correctly, a game of strip football, a wacky house-cleaning robot and Danny Bonaduce in a supporting role. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed that I recall all of this–probably a little of both–but I do know that I am happy that I will no longer have to sneak out of bed at 3:00 AM to catch this one on HBO anymore. Thank you, Anchor Bay–thank you for teaching us to laugh about love once again. Oh yeah, thanks for the dirty parts as well.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Henstooth Video. $24.95): Although he had no problem bringing Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” to Broadway, director Harold Prince turned out to be surprisingly clumsy choice for bringing the same material to the screen in this plodding and long-forgotten 1978 film version. Although Prince earned a few points for retaining a few members of the original cast–Len Cairou, Laurence Guittiard and the virtually irreplaceable Hermione Gingold–he immediately lost them thanks to the ghastly miscasting of Elizabeth Taylor in a singing role that was simply far too complex for her to handle. Unless you cannot live without hearing another version of “Send In The Clowns,” feel free to skip this one without hesitation.

MEATBALLS (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): Those of you who still harbor fond memories of the popular 1979 summer camp comedy–one of many films brought into being due to a then-existing loophole in the Canadian tax-shelter laws–without having actually seen a frame of it in years may want to think twice before picking up this DVD. Although the scenes with Bill Murray (in his first major film role) are still pretty amusing, the action pretty much grinds to a halt whenever he is off the screen. According to the commentary from director Ivan Reitman, preview audiences felt the same way at an early screening and new scenes with him were quickly added.

THE MESSENGERS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Yet another tale of an idiotic family (including Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller) being spooked by a stringy-haired and short-pants-wearing ghost because of some horrible wrong done to it back in the days when it had a pulse. In other words, you have seen all of it before and if you haven’t, I can’t see any reason why you should break your streak now.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: THE SECOND TV SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): Although those familiar with “Mission: Impossible” only through the increasingly bloated Tom Cruise blockbusters may be disappointed by the lack of over-the-top action in the 1960's-era TV series that inspired it, the second-season episodes collected here actually hold up pretty well and, unlike the films, actually feature the entire team working together to defeat that week’s villain instead of just standing around while the gleaming-toothed superstud does all the cool stuff.

NORBIT (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Unless you are Alan Arkin and want to properly commemorate the film that inadvertently helped win you this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to purchase a copy of this sexist, racist, sizest and deeply misanthropic work that will no doubt go down in film history as the absolute low point in the admittedly checkered screen career of star/co-writer Eddie Murphy. (Yes, it is worse than “Pluto Nash” by a mile.) Apparently Paramount feels the same way because they are also using this week to release special editions of two of Murphy’s earlier and far funnier efforts–the still-hilarious 1983 farce “Trading Places” and 1988's “Coming to America.” ($14.99 each)Alas, those looking for dirt in the latter title will be bummed that the disc contains no reference to either the widely-reported on-set tension between Murphy and director John Landis or the widely-covered Art Buchwald lawsuit that gave the world an eye-opening glimpse into the Byzantine world of Hollywood accounting.

THE PRISONER, OR HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): Based on a vague and unsubstantiated report that he was somehow involved in a potential plot on the life of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Iraqi Yunnis Abbas was arrested, interrogated and thrown into the infamous Abu Gharib prison for nine months before being released without explanation. Unfortunately for those involved, Abbas was a journalist who paid close attention to what was going on around him and this film is an eye-opening report on the casual disdain for human rights that has become increasingly prevalent as the war on terror grinds on and on. Is it completely fair and balanced? Perhaps not, but directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperline, whose previous war documentary was “Gunner Palace,” take a surprisingly low-key approach to their story that makes the film even more powerful and effective than it might have been if it had been done in a more overheated manner.

THE SAND PEBBLES/TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH/VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.98 each) Three classic war films from the Fox archives–in which Steve McQueen leads a gunboat up the Yangtze River to rescue missionaries in revolution-torn China, Gregory Peck leads a burned-out bomber squad into dangerous missions over Germany during World War II and Frank Sinatra leads a group of British captives from the clutches of the Germans by stealing a prison train–get the double-dip treatment with new two-disc sets featuring commentary tracks and documentaries on the productions of the films and the real-life incidents that helped inspire them.[br]

SEINFELD: SEASON EIGHT (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.95): Although many will want to pick up this latest collection of uncut episodes of the beloved sitcom for such instant classics as “The Bizarro Jerry” and “The Yada-Yada,” I, for one, will be picking it up to see Kramer dealing with Sarah Silverman’s jimmy legs and Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, Jerry getting bumped on Career Day and getting into video bootlegging, George being rejected by a religious cult and the jaw-dropping spectacle of Elaine showing off her unique dance moves.

WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICHAEL (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): Look, I know that this weird little 1990 misfire, in which a small Ohio town going agog over the return of a world-famous celebrity who used to be the town misfit, was probably not the highest priority over at Paramount Home Video–even though it was released at the height of co-star Winona Ryder’s stardom, it barely made a ripple at the box-office then and it is a title that has not engendered much nostalgia over the subsequent 17 years. That said, would it have killed them to simply get someone to proofread the front cover before putting it out on the market?

THE WORLD WAR II COLLECTION: VOLUME II –HEROES FIGHT FOR FREEDOM (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Although it isn’t what one might think of as a typical World War II film by any means, the pick hit of the six new-to-DVD titles collected here is “The Hill,” Sidney Lumet’s gripping 1965 psychological drama focusing on the battle of wills between the hard-core disciplinarians running a British prisoner-of-war camp in North Africa and a career soldier (Sean Connery in one of his best performances) who begins to lead his fellow prisoners in a rebellion against their vicious methods of control. The other titles featured here are a little closer to what one might logically expect in this kind of set. “Air Force” (1943) is the Howard Hawks classic that follows a B-17 crew through their tours of combat at Wake Island and the Coral Sea. “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944) is the epic retelling of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Van Johnson) and the air raid he led over Japan in the wake of Pearl Harbor that marked a turning point in the war for America. (The film even includes bits of footage of the actual raid.) “Command Decision” (1949) has Clark Gable battling both the weather and government officials in order to launch an attack that, if successful, will prevent Germany from producing much-needed military aircraft. “Hell To Eternity” (1960) tells the true story of Guy Gabaldon (Jeffrey Hunter), a Hispanic orphan from Los Angeles who was raised by a Japanese-American foster family and later served with valor in Saipan even as his foster family was thrown into an internment camp back home. “36 Hours” (1965) is a silly-but-entertaining potboiler about an Army major (James Garner) who is captured by the Germans and brainwashed into believing that the war is over in the hopes that it will cause him to discuss what he thinks are worthless Allied invasion plans.

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originally posted: 06/06/07 23:48:59
last updated: 06/07/07 00:07:54
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