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DVD Reviews for 10/26: Auteurist Class

by Peter Sobczynski

Great directors from all over the world get their due in a week that will challenge the wallets of any confirmed auteurist. If that doesn't do it for you, this week also includes a couple of slasher movies that you probably didn't see in theaters, a couple of cult TV favorites, some trippy animated offerings and even a 7 1/2-hour-long epic that utilizes puppets to tell the story of one of history's greatest monsters.

Although the late, great Stanley Kubrick is generally regarded as one of the towering geniuses in the world of cinema, you would hardly guess that from the way that the majority of his films have been treated on DVD over the years by Warner Brothers, the studio that he worked exclusively at for the last quarter-century of his career. In 1999, just a few months after his untimely death, the studio debuted a number of his films on DVD to tie in with the theatrical release of his last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” but even though the transfers were supposedly approved by Kubrick, they were so wan and washed out that it was widely assumed that the studio had merely used old masters without even attempting to clean them up. Three years later, the studio released a box set, “The Stanley Kubrick Collection,” which was a marked improvement on their first try–the films were granted new transfers and there was the added bonus of Jan Harlan’s informative career-spanning documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures”–but the lack of additional bonus features irked a lot of fans who knew that the studio could have done a lot more if they had just put in a little bit of effort.

Now, five years later, Warners has tried again with “Stanley Kubrick: The Director’s Collection,” a six-film, 10-disc box set that collects five of his best-known films and the “Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures” documentary along with new HD transfers and a wealth of bonus materials, and it turns out that the third time, in this case, is indeed the charm. While purists may still quibble about a couple of details, the simple fact is that the films have finally received the special edition treatments that they have so richly deserved and for any true film lover, this is a set that is absolutely essential. (By the way, one of the great controversies surrounding Kubrick’s work on home video is what the actual aspect ratio is supposed to be–I am not going to delve into that aspect at all for it will only inspire an increasingly maddening debate from which the only definitive escape would be not unlike the one taken by Private Gomer Pyle in the latrine.)

The set starts of with what is arguably Kubrick’s best-known and most analyzed work, his landmark 1968 sci-fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” and while it may not be my personal favorite of his works (more on that later), it is without doubt his best-made film and one of the supreme achievements of cinema–an endlessly fascinating and ultimately unknowable look at mankind and its often self-destructive quest for knowledge and power that hurtles us from the first stirrings of mankind to outer space in the 21st century and beyond. Those of you expecting a standard-issue genre film may be disappointed by its lack of conventional action, characterization (the closest thing to a human character in the film turns out to be a robot that goes murderously insane as the story progresses) or any sort of conventional narrative resolution. And yet, these are the very aspects that make it so fresh and endlessly rewatchable even after four decades–like the issues it deals with throughout, the film is essentially timeless and as a result, it will never go out of fashion and will remain a touchstone work that inspires debate and discussion for as long as there are people around to debate and discuss it. On the DVD, you will find a commentary track from co-stars Keir Dullea, a Channel Four feature documentary on the making of the film, four shorter featurettes on its various historical aspects and an audio interview that Kubrick recorded in 1966.

After plans to make a film version of the life of Napoleon fell through, Kubrick’s next project turned out to be an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” a violent futuristic melodrama about a psychopathic punk kid (Malcolm McDowell in one of his most enduring performances) who takes part in a prison experiment that transforms him into a model citizen by robbing him of his free will–the very thing that makes all of us human in the first place. Although this one has gone on to be an enormous cult favorite as well, I must confess that it is probably my least favorite Kubrick film–after its electrifying opening third, it begins to drag unmercifully in its middle section with its countless scenes of people signing forms in triplicate and the non-Alex characters are so grotesquely conceived and played that it borders on overkill. That said, I have probably seen this film more time than most films that I actually like in the hopes that it may one day click for me as it has with others. The first disc features a commentary track from McDowell and historian Nick Redman while the second includes “Still Tickin’: The Return of Clockwork Orange,” another Channel Four documentary dedicated to the film and its controversial history (Kubrick himself pulled it from distribution in the U.K. for nearly a quarter-century after its initial release), a shorter featurette on its making and “O Lucky Malcolm,” a profile of its star.

Not only is 1980's “The Shining” my favorite Kubrick film, I consider it to be the finest horror film ever made. Although it utilizes the same conceit as the Stephen King novel it is based on–a man slowly goes crazy while stuck in an isolated and possibly haunted Colorado hotel for the winter with his wife and young son–Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson transformed it into a terrifying look at both the disintegration of the family unit and the pain of the artistic process. At its center, this is essentially a film about the horror of writers block and as someone who has suffered from that from time to time (you don’t think this column was handed in on time, do you?), I can relate to that in far more significant ways than the usual horror nonsense involving malevolent spooks and mad slashers. The features here include a commentary from critic/biographer John Baxter and Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam camera system that Kubrick utilized to such haunting effect throughout, Viviane Kubrick’s fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary “The Making of ‘The Shining” and three additional featurettes.

Although the other films in the set are sold separately as well, 1987's “Full Metal Jacket” can only be had if you purchase the entire box set–for many, their feelings towards it will be the tipping point between getting individual titles or the whole set. Based on Gustav Hasford’s short, spare and shocking novel “The Short-Timers,” the film tells a formally radical two-part story that opens with a group of raw Marine recruits (including Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio) undergoing a hellish training period under the watch of the ultimate badass DI ( R Lee. Ermey, a former real-life instructor who launched a successful acting career with his memorable appearance here) before following them through the insanity and brutality of the battlefield of Vietnam. Although it pales before “Paths Of Glory,” Kubrick’s incredibly moving anti-war film from 1957, this is still an enormously funny and frightening work that looks better and better with each passing year. The extras here include a short featurette on its production and a commentary track including co-stars Ermey, D’Onofrio and Adam Baldwin as well as critic Jay Cocks.

When Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” premiered in the summer of 1999 after an avalanche of hype, audiences were disappointed that it wasn’t just 156 minutes of co-stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman fucking. Instead, Kubrick used Arthur Schnitzler’s novella “Traumnovelle” as an inspiration for a fascinating waking nightmare about sexual jealousy within the confines of a seemingly happy and stable marriage. Although one could speculate as to what effect the protracted shooting schedule had on the marriage of Cruise and Kidman, who divorced soon after its release, their scenes together are electrifying (the moment in which Kidman gives her pot-induced confession of lust towards a strange man may be the single finest thing she has done in a film) and the film as a whole is one that is ripe for rediscovery. Long available in the U.S. in a bowdlerized edition in which some of the sexual content in the central orgy sequence was obviously obscured by the inclusion of digital figures, this DVD includes the unexpurgated version that the rest of the world has been watching for years. (Although the package promises both cuts of the film, the original American version does not appear here.) Although a promised commentary track from co-star Sydney Pollack doesn’t turn up after all, the disc does include “The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut,” a 3-part Channel Four documentary on the making of the film, additional interview footage with Cruise, Kidman and Kubrick pal Steven Spielberg and “Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick,” an informative featurette that delves into three projects that Kubrick developed and abandoned over the years–his mammoth historical epic “Napoleon,” the WW II drama “Wartime Lies” and “A.I.:Artificial Intelligence,” which was later brought to the screen by Spielberg. The most valuable extra from a sentimental point of view is a video of Kubrick’s acceptance speech when he received the Directors Guild of America’s D.W. Griffith Award in 1998–in it, he retells the story of Icarus with a decidedly different spin on its underlying moral.

A Warner Home Video release. $79.98


THE ADVENTURES OF AQUAMAN (Warner Home Video. $26.98): Everyone’s favorite superhero punchline defends the lost world of Atlantis from any number of ne’er-do-wells with the aid of Aqualad (his ward), Mera (presumably his beard) and Aqualad’s pet walrus, Tusky. Hard to imagine that this guy would one day inspire one of the most successful movies ever made, at least in the world of fiction.

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES–VOLUME ONE (Paramount Home Video. $129.99): In an effort to jump-start the hype for next summer’s long-awaited sequel, “Indiana Jones And The Thing That I Keep Blanking On That I Am Too Lazy To Look Up For Myself,” Paramount offers up the first of three mammoth sets dedicated to not-entirely-popular television series that ran briefly in the early 1990's. Although the idea of a weekly Indiana Jones series sounded appealing enough, even though viewers had to realize ahead of time that the spectacle would have to be greatly reduced to make it on the small screen, viewers tuned out in droves when they discovered that the show was essentially a series of overly earnest history lessons in which the juvenile version of our hero would interact with a number of historical figures–imagine “Peabody and Sherman” without the jokes. This 12-disc set contain seven feature-length episodes (featuring encounters with T.E. Lawrence, Thomas Edison, Leo Tolstoy and Teddy Roosevelt, among others) and an additional five discs with a enormous array of bonus features about the historical figures and events depicted in the episodes. And yes, that is Catherine Zeta Jones making an early appearance in the episode “Daredevils of the Desert.”

AMERICAN GANGSTER–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $26.99): No, the eagerly anticipated Ridley Scott-Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe epic is not going the direct-to-video route. This is actually the first season of the BET documentary series that offers up detailed looks at the rises and falls of some of the most notorious African-American criminals of all time. Happily, this series is not quite as exploitative as it sounds and it actually paints a number of fascinating portraits of the face of contemporary crime.

THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN–THE ULTIMATE EDITION (Image Entertainment. $29.95): The film school perennial–the work that introduced the world to the phrase “We’ll fix it in the editing”–returns to home video in a newly restored and rescored edition that also includes a 42-minute documentary on its creation and restoration.

BREATHLESS (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): With the sole exception of “Citizen Kane,” this feature debut from the world-renowned director Jean-Luc Godard remains the most startling and exciting debut in the entire history of film–in just under 90 minutes, he managed to pay homage to his favorites from the past, reinvented the entire language of the cinema (via such innovations as the jump-cut) and managed to tell the compelling story about a pair of star-crossed lovers (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg) on the run in Paris. Previously released in a decent-enough version from Fox Lorber, the film gets the special edition it deserves from Criterion–besides a newly restored hi-def transfer, this two-disc set also includes vintage interviews with Godard, Belmondo and Seberg, a feature-length documentary on the film’s landmark production, a copy of the original treatment (penned by some little-known guy named Francois Truffaut) and video essays on the film and its impact by filmmaker Mark Rappaport and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.. (As great as this film is, I must admit that in some ways, I actually prefer the sadly underrated 1983 American remake with Richard Gere–a dazzling homage to Godard that today plays like a Tarantino movie even though it was produced a decade before anyone had ever heard of him.)

THE BURT LANCASTER SIGNATURE COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $49.98): One of the all-time great leading men finally gets the box set treatment from Warners. Included in this set are “The Flame And The Arrow,” a 1950 swashbuckler in which he leaps into action when his wife and child are absconded with by the local evil overlord, 1951's “Jim Thorpe–All-American,” a biopic of the life of the legendary athlete who triumphed at the Olympics and was forced to return his medals because he once played semi-pro baseball (although the fact that he was a Native American might have had something to do with it as well), “South Seas Woman,” an inessential 1953 courtroom drama in which he plays a Marine sergeant being court-martialed for being AWOL from his base at Pearl Harbor at the worst possible time, “His Majesty O’Keefe,” an 1954 drama in which he plays a captain who loses his ship in a mutiny and winds up on a cocoanut-rich island where the natives inexplicably make him a king and “Executive Action,” a little-seen but not uninteresting 1973 docu-drama that offered up a cinematic portrait of a possible JFK assassination conspiracy two decades before Oliver Stone got around to it.

THE CARE BEARS–OOPSY DOES IT (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.95): The enduringly popular cartoon characters enter the world of CGI animation with the gripping tale of Oopsy Bear, a clumsy critter whose actions inadvertently to the nasty Grizzle attempting to steal the belly badges of the other bears. I haven’t quite gotten to the end of this one yet but I am going to make a bold guess that Oopsy will a.) save the day and b.) learn a valuable lesson about something. Either way, the kids who get this will also find their very own Oopsy included in the package.

CLIVE CUSSLER’S SEA HUNTERS (Acorn Media. $49.99): The popular pulp novelist/deep sea enthusiast, along with maritime archaeologist James Delgado, takes us underwater to explore some of the notable shipwrecks from World War II in a series of television episodes that follow them from the initial research and planning phases to the moments of actual discovery. Trust me, it is a lot more interesting to sit through than fricking “Sahara.”

CUTTING CLASS (Lionsgate Entertainment. $14.95): That’s right, kids–another obscure slasher movie from the late 1980's video boom is heading for DVD. Of course, the fact that it features a then-unknown hunk by the name of Brad Pitt as one of the stars might have a little something to do with that.

DAYS OF HEAVEN (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In a move sure to delight art-film snobs the world over, Terrence Malick and Criterion have joined forces at last to produce a special edition of Malick’s haunting 1978 epic about a deadly Depression-era love triangle (including Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) set amidst a wheat farm in the Texas panhandle. Although the reclusive Malick is nowhere to be seen or heard here, the disc does include a commentary by four of his collaborators (art director Jack Fisk, editor Billy Weber, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Diane Crittenden), interviews with Gere and Shepard as well as camera operator John Bailey and Haskell Wexler, the two men who, along with the late Nestor Almendros, created the landmark look of the film that caused it to instantly be regarded as one of the most visually extraordinary movies ever made.

FANTASTIC PLANET (Facets Video. $24.95):After years in public-domain hell, Rene Laloux’s trippy animated sci-fi cult classic (which won the Special Jury Prize when it premiered at Cannes in 1973 and is now considered one of the great European animated films) finally gets the home-video release that it deserves with a DVD that also includes “Fantastic Laloux,” a documentary on the film’s creation, and the early Laloux short “The Snails.”

FIDO (Lionsgate Entertainment. $28.98): Remember the joke at the end of “Shaun of the Dead’ in which the surviving zombies (for lack of a better description) were put to work as menial laborers? This Canadian-lensed comedy takes that joke and spins an entire movie out of it set in an alternative 1950's America in which owning your own domestic zombie is a prime status symbol and in which a young boy and his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) befriend their new undead member of the household (Billy Connelly). It’s a one-joke film–one that does grow tiresome towards the end–but it does contain enough genuine laughs to make it worth adding onto your holiday viewing list.

HOME OF THE BRAVE (MGM Home Entertainment. $27.98): I think the idea of this film–in which a group of physically and emotionally wounded American soldiers (including Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) find it difficult to adjust to normal life when they return home after serving in Iraq–was to do a contemporary version of such chestnuts as “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “Coming Home.” A noble idea but one that is fatally undone by Winkler’s ham-handed direction and a screenplay that has no idea of what it is trying to say about veterans trying to come to grips with their experiences while among those who can never fully understand what they went through. However, bad-film fanatics should probably keep an eye out for it because the sequence in which a drunken Jackson freaks out at Thanksgiving has all the earmarks of being a camp classic along the lines of the wire hanger scene from “Mommie Dearest.”

HOSTEL–PART II (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): Although marginally better than the 2006 original, Eli Roth’s surprisingly unsuccessful sequel to his surprisingly successful horror hit merely offered up another bunch of callow American kids, this time a trio of girls (Lauren German, Bijou Phillips and Heather Matarazzo) who find themselves being gruesomely tortured by foreigners who have paid huge amounts of money for the privilege. Undiscriminating gorehounds might get a kick out of some of the perverse tableaus on display (especially the Elizabeth Bathoroy–inspired bit of mayhem that earned the film a lot of pre-release controversy) but anyone else planning on eating another meal in this lifetime should probably give it a pass.

THE L WORD–THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Showtime Entertainment/Paramount Home Video. $55.98): Look, let’s not kid ourselves. You and I both know the real reason why most people continue to tune into this increasingly overwrought Showtime soap opera week after week–to see its cast of insanely hot lesbian characters in various states of undress and lip-lock. No need to be ashamed about that, especially when this season finds the usual gang of megababes (including Mia Kirshner, Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier) joined by such luminaries as Rosanna Arquette, Marlee Matlin and Cybill Shepard.

THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $49.98): Following up on their acclaimed box set dedicated to the celebrated Italian cult director earlier this year, Anchor Bay offers up another collection of 8 works from the late filmmaker. Those who only associate his name with horror films may be surprised to discover that this set includes a spaghetti western spoof (“Roy Colt and Winchester Jack”), a tense hostage drama (“Rabid Dogs”) and a silly sex comedy (“Four Times That Night”) among its titles. Of course, the others included here find him on more familiar ground–“Baron Blood” (a dopey guy brings an ancestor back to life, only to realize that he was a bloodthirsty psychopath), “Lisa And The Devil” (innocent tourist Elke Sommer finds herself staying at a villa belong to a man who may or may not be Satan, but who is definitely played by Telly Savalas), “House of Exorcism” (a version of “Lisa and the Devil” with additional footage shot by the producers, over Bava’s objections, in order to re-release it as an “Exorcist” clone”), “5 Dolls For An August Moon” (another retread of the Agatha Christie warhorse “Ten Little Indians” featuring Italian cult actress Edwige Fenech in all her glory) and, best of all, “Bay of Blood” (Bava’s delirious and diabolical work that essentially invented the mad slasher genre–you’ll be amazed the number of things that “Friday the 13th” stole from it–slyly subverted the entire horror genre and concluded with one of the greatest endings in screen history.)

MEET THE ROBINSONS (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Easily the most entertaining non-Pixar Disney animated film in years, this was a wild romp about a brilliant young boy who journeys into the future to track down a mysterious rotter in a bowler hat who has stolen one of his inventions and discovers that he plans to use it to go back in time and alter the future forever. Although this disc cannot replicate the original 3-D theatrical presentation, the film itself is so fast, funny and surprisingly heartwarming that the lack of a third dimension will hardly be noticed by most viewers.

MR BROOKS (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although it hardly made a ripple at the box-office last summer against all the blockbuster behemoths, this darkly funny serial-killer saga told the gory story of a seemingly ordinary and upstanding citizen (Kevin Costner) who is egged on by his nasty alter-ego (William Hurt) to indulge in his taste for stalking and killing randomly-selected strangers. Equally funny and creepy–words that describe both the screenplay and the brilliant tag-team performances by Costner and Hurt)–the only flaws are the bizarre miscasting of Demi Moore (as a tough cop on the case) and Dane Cook (who plays an obnoxious twerp who discovers Costner’s secret and asks a unusual favor in exchange for his silence) and an extra minute at the very end that badly subverts what would have been an otherwise unforgettable conclusion. Yeah, I know it looks like a film that has been sitting around since 1992 but trust me, it is a blast from start to almost the finish.

NCIS: NAVAL CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE SERVICE–THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $64.99): Ah, Pauley Parrette, you made-for-TV Goth minx–you will be mine one day. You know, there is probably more to write about this nouveau-“JAG” series, in which Mark Harmon leads a ragtag group of investigators (including David McCallum, Lauren Holly and the not-too-shabby-herself Cote de Pablo) that solve the crimes that the Navy just can’t be bothered with, but who could possibly concentrate long enough to write them with thoughts of her floating around? Okay, I’ll try–besides the 24 Season 4 episodes, this set includes a few cast and crew commentaries, a cast roundtable discussion and numerous behind-the-scenes documentaries, though none of the latter seem to involve the behind-the-scenes power play that Harmon allegedly pulled that led to the ouster of show creator Don Bellasario.

O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video. $19.98): With the long-awaited release of this epic-length (178 minutes) comedy, the Mick Travis trilogy created by director Lindsay Anderson and star Malcolm McDowell (which was preceded by 1967's “If. . . “ and concluded in 1983 with the scandalously underseen “Brittania Hospital”), one of the landmark works of post-war British cinema, is finally available on DVD in its entirety. In this modern-day riff on “Candide,” former schoolboy rebel Mick (McDowell, in a performance even more mesmerizing than his work in “A Clockwork Orange”) goes to work as a coffee salesman and gets a first-hand look at the ups and downs of the British class system as he discovers, to quote from the incredible Alan Price song score, “Smile when you’re making it/Laugh while you’re taking it/Even though you’re faking it, nobody’s gonna know.” Trivia note #!: If you look closely at Mick’s order book at one point, you will see that one of his clients is Alexander de Large, the name of the character he played in “A Clockwork Orange.” Trivia note #2: “Caligula” buffs will be amused to note that one of the characters McDowell encounters on his journey is played by his co-star in that later film, Helen Mirren. Trivia note #3: When Warner Home Video was preparing their special edition DVD of “A Clockwork Orange,” they asked McDowell to provide a commentary track and he said that he would on the condition that he would also be allowed to do one for this film as well–they agreed and he did them for both.

OUR HITLER (Facets Video. $79.95): Using puppets, bizarre props, blaring music and rear-screen projection, among other tricks, German filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg created this astonishing 7 1/2-hour-long meditation on Adolph Hitler, how the Third Reich rose to power and why both of them continue to fascinate us to this day. Look, I know that most of you are probably not exactly champing at the bit to watch a 7 ½-hour meditation on Nazism that utilizes puppets but you are going to have to trust me on this–this is a landmark film (Francis Ford Coppola clearly thought so as he helped distribute it back in 1979) that will hopefully gain a wider audience through the miracle of DVD.

THE RUTH RENDELL MYSTERIES–SET 2 (Acorn Media. $49.95):Six works from the world-renowned suspense novelist are brought to the small screen in this collection of TV movies from England featuring such performers as James D’Arcy, Paul Freeman and Susannah York–as a result of the source material, there are smarter and craftier than your average TV mystery fodder.

THE SOPRANOS: SEASON 6, VOLUME 2 (HBO Home Video. $99.98): The final collection of episodes from the groun

UNDER THE VOLCANO (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): At 78, an age when most movie directors have retired from Hollywood in order to spend time on the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit, John Huston kicked off his string of career-capping triumphs (which also included “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The Dead”) with this dazzling adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s novel chronicling one day in the life of a self-destructive British consul (Albert Finney in one of his greatest performances) drinking his life away in a sleepy Mexican town, much to the distress of his ex-wife (Jacqueline Bisset) and his estranged brother (Anthony Andrews). This 2-disc set includes a commentary from the film’s producers, new interviews with Bisset and screenwriter Guy Gallo, a 1984 audio interview with Huston, a 1984 documentary on the making of the film and “Volcano: An Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry,” a feature-length Oscar-nominated documentary from 1976, narrated by the late Richard Burton, that examines the life and work of the author.

VERONICA MARS–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Warner Home Video. $59.98): Although this wonderful show about a teen private eye (Kristen Bell in her star-making role) was a smart, funny and surprisingly well-written wonder that was often considered to be the genuine successor to the late, great “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it never did that well in the ratings and after this third season, in which our heroine solved crimes on her college campus, failed to achieve the same ratings as the reality show about becoming a Pussycat Doll that briefly took over its time slot, it was finally cancelled. A shame, to be sure, but at least we can somewhat consol ourselves with this final season of episodes while watching Bell doing her thing on her extended guest stint on “Heroes.”

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originally posted: 10/26/07 23:34:16
last updated: 10/27/07 05:27:58
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