Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

In 1973, the production company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sought to fund a group of relatively inexpensive features, one being a blaxploitation vampire film in an attempt to reproduce the success of the previous year’s Blacula. When playwright Bill Gunn was initially pitched the idea, he balked, but later grew intrigued by the potential for using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Gunn’s film, Ganja & Hess, bore a uniquely elegiac dream structure, with its hypnotic images, arthouse sensibility, and cyclical music cues resembling something worlds away from William Marshall’s broadly comic take on Dracula. Concerned with themes of desire, self-destruction, and the tensions between cultural history and assimilation, Gunn created an image of black vampirism that refused to be a novelty or gimmick, manifested in a style of filmmaking that rejected token categorization. Baffled, the production company didn’t know what to do with Gunn’s film despite its positive reception at Cannes. Kelly-Jordan sold Ganja & Hess to a smaller distributor who cut it by more than half an hour, advertised its sex scenes, and rescored/redubbed its audio track until finally releasing the film on the grindhouse circuit under the title Blood Couple. The original cut was restored twenty-five years later through a combination of prints, and with new restorations, upgrades, and repertory screenings since, Gunn’s film has slowly gained a reputation as a truly singular work of African American filmmaking. Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is a manifest tribute to a still-underseen film – another important “upgrade” that serves […]

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Paramount Pictures

Although Hollywood has been no stranger to cinematic portrayals of the Civil Rights movement, it has long avoided the prospect of tackling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. head-on. And it’s clear why – his legacy is vast, mythic, and daunting. The cultural memory of King is generally as omnipresent as it is unspecific, forming his ghost through monuments, perfunctory history lessons, and yesterday’s federal holiday into a historical character defined (and limited) by select phrases from speeches as well as decontextualized ideas like “nonviolence.” As a cinematic presence, King has largely been relegated to the margins of other people’s biopics like The Butler and Ali, and is often presented in a fashion consonant with his mythic status – as a relic of history and a fountain of wisdom rather than an actual, historical person. Ava DuVernay’s Selma pulls King’s legacy away from the conventional narratives of achieving certain equal rights – which often promotes historical simplicity and passive self-satisfaction – and instead focuses on the means by which rights have been fought for, with all of the rifts, risks, politicking, and mortal dangers in tow.

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Universal Pictures

In October 2012, Alex Cross was promoted by the full faith an effort of Summit Entertainment as a would-be hit. Before the film was even released, Double Crossed, another book in James Patterson’s detective series, had been greenlit to follow shortly after, making Alex Cross the inaugural entry in a franchise organized around Tyler Perry as the titular character. But Alex Cross grossed only $25 million against a modest $35 million budget, and was subject to blisteringly poor reviews that called out the film’s ineptitude and its miscasting of Perry. Eric Hynes of The Village Voice deemed Alex Cross “a strong candidate for the dumbest film of the year.” The highly visible critical and financial failure of the film effectively put to rest any plans to franchise the series. Filmmaker Rob Cohen’s helming of Alex Cross was labeled “inept,” and its poor performance effectively prevented its studio from its franchising goals. In some circumstances, such a rollout could seriously threaten the career of a director. Yet here we are, slightly over two years later, and Rob Cohen has another Hollywood film coming out in ten days, the Jennifer Lopez-starring thriller The Boy Next Door.

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Jaws19-2

In Back to the Future Part II, while Marty McFly surveys the strange landscape of Hill Valley in 2015, he comes across a marquee poster advertising Jaws 19 in 3D. The advertisement produces a giant hologram shark from the “Max Spielberg” film that threatens to consume Marty, already overwhelmed by the kinetic stimuli of public space 30 years removed from 1985. When it was made, this moment was tailored as a not-so-subtle jab at the Jaws franchise which, by the mid-1980s, seemed to show no signs of stopping despite diminishing returns and an association with the now-indomitable Spielberg that was in-name-only. Yet Back to the Future Part II is a strange place to level a joke at a Hollywood attempting to manufacture things into perpetuity. While not an entirely original idea, it was relatively novel in the late 1980s for a Hollywood franchise to produce back-to-back sequels, organized in a serial format, as the series’ second and third part did – an output strategy that, with sections of best-selling novels regularly adapted into films, has since become regular practice in contemporary tentpole filmmaking. And Robert Zemeckis himself has proven no stranger to the type of gimmicky spectacle and creative recycling sent up for parody by this moment. While Back to the Future Part II’s 80s-fied take on 2015 – including hoverboards, mesh-plastic chic, and megamalls – unsurprisingly bears little resemblance to our actual 2015, its brief vision of this year’s movie culture manifested an insightful summation of the familiarity-loving Hollywood that […]

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United Artists

“For some, theaters were a place to shelter from the troubles of the world, but they were also where most Americans were confronted by vivid images of the troubles themselves, brought home in footage that was more immediate and overwhelming than newspapers or radio broadcasts could ever be.” The above quote, excerpted from Mark Harris’ “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” is made in specific reference to theatrical newsreels in 1940, which exposed Americans to stark images of WWII while the Hollywood features that they introduced were prevented from acknowledging the war in such a direct fashion. The gap that this pre-intervention limbo period produced between fiction and non-fiction speaks to a greater paradox that has overtly and covertly determined the American experience of commercial moviegoing: the fact that, as I argued two years ago, Hollywood regularly “eschews reality just as it borrows from it.” As far as we know, never before has a foreign power infiltrated a movie studio and directly threatened the prospective audiences of one of its properties. The specific situation around the current debacle that is The Interview is largely unprecedented. But Sony’s reaction is not, for it has deep roots in Hollywood’s treatment of relevant political topics. The Interview’s abandoned release simply brings to light what has been intrinsic to Hollywood’s self-governance: censorship as a defining practice, justified by the possibility of threat.

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Paramount Pictures

When Interstellar’s credits rolled, I felt satisfied and relieved – not only because I enjoyed the stunning but imperfect film, but because the very experience of seeing the film on film went smoothly. In a packed house at an Indianapolis IMAX theater late on a rainy midweek opening night, all sub-three hours (and an unfathomable number of feet) of 70mm film cycled through the light of the projector without incident. I had heard stories of disastrous projection experiences at advance screenings from London to San Francisco, and the theater’s manager didn’t assuage my concerns about the volatility of the epic undertaking when he announced, via microphone, how full the plate of 70mm film is, and how Nolan’s 168-minute work could not be a minute longer without the celluloid literally falling off. Even though the 70mm projector and all its needs were invisible to us, Interstellar was not the only spectacle on display that evening – the existence of the apparatus that made the experience possible was a powerful reminder of the increasingly rare experience of filmgoing as an event. And what a strange experience it is to emote over the same massive images with a room full of strangers. I had this experience twice in 2014 – once with Christopher Nolan‘s Hollywood epic, and the other with Goodbye to Language 3D, the most recent work of octogenarian cinematic provocateur Jean-Luc Godard. Though it’s hard to imagine two theatrically released 2014 films that are more different, each of these works fully inhabit and embrace the […]

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To Live and Die in LA

Los Angeles is a city whose most privileged corners seem to prize youth at any cost against a backdrop of twelve-month sunshine. It is a city in which time moves differently than it does anywhere else, where the passing of seasons simply does not occur in as pronounced a fashion, and traffic replaces weather as the subject of universal conversation. It should come as no surprise, then, that Los Angeles has never been an iconic city for representing the holiday season. Where New York, Chicago, the suburban Midwest, and even Budapest have provided the settings for numerous entries in Hollywood’s holiday film canon, Los Angeles has rarely been used or imagined as a location that produces a distinct image of the holidays, despite the fact that it has provided soundstages for numerous movies revisited this time of year. This fact stands out in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, the director’s 1985 return to the type of fast-paced, gritty, realist police narrative that he made his name on a decade prior with The French Connection. To Live and Die in LA is known for many things – the launch of Willem Dafoe’s career, a wall-to-wall Wang Chung soundtrack, a crazy good high speed chase scene – but it isn’t known well enough as an odd yet fitting holiday movie for Los Angeles, and perhaps the subtlest Christmas movie ever made.

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Pruitt Igoe Myth

As cable news has been wallowing in shortsightedness and ahistorical thinking in its coverage of the Ferguson grand jury verdict and ensuing protests, the smarter corners of the internet have provided a bevy of useful resources, syllabi, polemics, and essays that have explained, at length and in great context, why the lack of accountability for the killing of a young, unarmed African-American male at the hands of a white police officer warrants passionate demonstrations nationwide. Such tools have been essential for attempting to explain to skeptical ears how institutional racism continues to exercise a disproportionate (and sometimes lethal) affect on the lives of young black men, and how various extensions of state power – namely, police officers – are rarely held accountable for their abuses of said power, which perpetuates a culture of policing that serves the lives of some at the expense of others. The cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt and John Crawford are all part of the same elephant in the room that we collectively refuse to acknowledge: a social poison that continues to motivate irrational but deep-rooted fear of black bodies and justify the violence continually leveled against them. But, as many of the above resources explain, the history that undergirds the present moment runs deep. This history is fully available – not only in written form, but also in many a moving image. Several indispensible non-fiction films have framed histories that echo or have direct bearing on this moment.

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Serial Podcast

It’s happened. A podcast has achieved the status of a cultural phenomenon. Where podcasting has largely either operated as a supplementary commentary on culture (from new films to dead authors to linguistics, and probably everything else) or an extension of talk radio (political or public radio-style podcasts), serving as the custodian of our connected watercooler conversations, This American Life’s Serial podcast has now found itself at the center of a cultural conversation and a thing to be witnessed on its own – the type of thing people make podcasts about. Serial as a phenomenon can be largely credited to its inventive use of the medium – to tell a story over weeks like a must-see television show. And like the way we currently watch television, Serial has inspired a regular output of recaps, conversations, fan theories, thinkpieces, and parodies. Add the stakes inherent in the fact that Serial is one journalist’s episode-to-episode investigation of a complicated 15-year-old murder case, and what you have is the capacities of a storytelling platform transforming real life into accessible, compelling, perhaps exploitative drama. But the way we’ve been making sense of Serial as a phenomenon says a great deal about how we relate to – and “elevate” – new media phenomena based on prior media phenomena.

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Interstellar Memento 1

Time is a precious resource in Christopher Nolan’s most personal (i.e., non-bat-related) films, and time rarely ever runs in a linear, straightforward fashion. In Memento, time is split between a receding past and a stagnant present that changes the shape of knowledge and memory with every revelation it produces. In Inception, time is collapsed upon itself many times over, with a singular moment in one tier of consciousness extending to a multiplied time scale in others. Interstellar perhaps presents his most tortured relationship to the movement of time, wherein time is relative yet deeply consequential depending on your orientation with the cosmos, and must therefore be approached strategically. Your experience of time in Interstellar is hardly universal. It depends very much on where you are. While the film’s genre-entry depiction of the procession of time is intended as a rumination on relativity, black holes and the like, as a cinematic (i.e., non-scientific but experiential) exercise, Interstellar’s depiction of temporal relativity is truly affecting. It’s maybe the strongest suit of a rich but messy film, for it exercises something unique about the very act of watching movies.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 Raphael

Lynchian. Kubrickian. Felliniesque. A directorial adjective can have strong, transportable power, even if its exact meaning may rely more on general impressions and evocations of inspiration than a concrete set of rules. Many of these terms, however, gain currency well after a director has established a set style, producing a moniker that results as a sort of shorthand for auteurism: a term pregnant with assumed meaning to describe an implied close familiarity with the themes, styles and obsessions that codify a filmmaker’s body of work. “Lynchian” was arguably solidified as popular parlance with David Foster Wallace’s 1996 essay from a visit to the set of Lost Highway, a work of writing that tied together both Lynch’s idiosyncratic film style and his esoteric personality as a person. And that’s the essential formula for the directorial adjective: unlike the auteur theory, which provides insights into the person but takes an analysis of the films themselves as a primary concern, the directorial adjective suggests a fluid coherence between the defining aspects of films and the outsized personality of their maker. To be Kubrickian is to be an obsessive perfectionist of form. To be Hitchcockian is to possess a sadistic sense of humor imbued through the events of the thriller, a personality that regularly makes murder into a game. You don’t know it when you see it with the directorial adjective, you know it when you feel it, when you sense the currents of that personality speak through choices of style and narrative. There […]

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Repulsion Polanski

Where would horror cinema be without gothic fiction? The careers of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, James Whale, Roger Corman and many a German expressionist owe a great deal to the storied architecture that characterized the settings of 18th and 19th century literary classics. Moreover, from The Uninvited and Rebecca in the 1940s to the modern takes of the early 1960s (The Haunting and The Innocents, just to name a couple), the grand haunted house has proven to be a mainstay in horror, whether as a foreboding living space harboring dark secrets, a site for challenging and torturing tourists and skeptics, or an active site of dark experiments. The notion that houses – namely, large estates – contain histories which resonate beyond mortal bodies that inhabited them has vastly defined and influenced not only the terms of a cinematic genre, but what we find scary in general. But as postwar suburbanization came to redefine the relation between people and the places they reside, the horror genre had to redefine itself away from an increasingly archaic experience of housing. But haunting the suburbs has proven to possess its own unique set of problems: how does a place that has minimal history become haunted by spirits of the past?

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20000 Days on Earth

For a while, it seemed like movies about music were at serious risk of getting in an unsalvageable rut of redundancy. Narrative films have relied repeatedly on the musical biopic, where seemingly every landmark musician in the second half of the twentieth century has been afforded an identical dramatic arc. It’s a formula that an occasional great performance can rise above, but ultimately offers little new in terms of cinema’s relationship with the power of pop. Nonfiction films, by contrast, have shown an opposite problem, treating lesser-known chapters of popular music history (from underappreciated artists to allegedly undervalued studios) with all-too-familiar hagiographies and seemingly requisite Bono interviews. But 2014 has not only produced a surprising glut of interesting films about music, it’s shown how great movies about music can explore relationships between sound and image, music and history, art and the artist well outside of the tired formulas. Here are some solid movies released this year that have generated a rather different kind of noise.

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Double Down Breen

Writer/Director/Producer/Editor/Actor/Music Supervisor Neil Breen throws himself against the dry ground of the Nevada desert, articulating the existential climax of his dense, bewildering, remarkable film Double Down by screaming, “I’m an American. I’m an American! I love this country, my country!” Breen plays a mercenary computer hacker who abandoned his work as a military fighter pilot after somebody (?) shoots and kills his fiancée during a naked lounging session in his pool. Breen’s character’s dramatic outpouring of patriotic guilt promises a return to moral fortitude after serving whatever moneyed interests pay him the highest dollar – in this case, an unidentified foreign nation instructing him to singlehandedly shut down the Las Vegas strip for two months. Double Down’s protagonist gives us some insight into the mind of its esoteric creator. The first third of the film features Breen’s character (named Aaron in the trailer and Eric in the film) listing his seemingly endless resumé, from his storied work as a fighter pilot honored by every military medal in existence to his (literally) incredible skills at digital espionage. Aaron/Eric is a self-sufficient one man industry, reliant on no one and requiring only canned tuna fish, his car, his three laptops, his three flip phones and his two satellite dishes (that he expertly attaches to his car’s bumper). Similarly, Breen himself is a multi-hyphenate and an ostensibly self-reliant individualist. A Las Vegas architect who has self-funded three bad movies thus far, Breen’s work represents something of a Baby Boomer’s fantasy come to life as he uses his accumulated […]

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EW

Warning: Spoilers for Gone Girl (book and film) Boy kisses girl. Fade out. Throughout the canon of classic Hollywood to today’s rom-coms, the beginning of coupledom – and even marriage itself – has been presented as the end of the narrative’s dramatic journey. The long-held institution of “happily ever after” assumes marriage and committed coupledom to be a reliably constant plane of uneventful happiness compared to the roller coaster of getting the couple together in the first place. Movies about long-term couplehood – or, more accurately, movies about breakups and divorce – have, by contrast, been the forte of independent and art house filmmaking, institutions markedly less invested in happy endings. But for a social convention that so many people experience, for a form of human connection that takes up and develops throughout years of peoples’ lives, marriage and other forms of committed coupledom have provided significantly fewer narratives than stories of people getting together or people breaking up. Yet there is as much (if not more) drama, character development and awkward comedy in long-term commitment as there is in getting together. David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl offers a notable shift in this direction: an interrogation on the institution of shared living in the guise of a missing person thriller. But this film follows a couple of other, less blockbuster-y titles that share similarly incisive and unique takes on the subject of committed coupledom.

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Focus Features

With David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl opening Friday, the often fraught relationship between narrative cinema and written fiction is in the air, and has already produced an onslaught of comparison pieces between the book and the film. A filmmaker’s relationship to an author’s vision is a tricky one that is rarely assuaged by the author’s presence in the filmmaking process – difficult-to-navigate medium-specific capacities make difficult hurdles for even the most “cinematic” novels. But what happens when this process is inverted? And no, I’m not talking about novelizations, but the relatively rare instances in which established film directors publish novels independent of their cinematic output. No doubt, their cinematic output frames any readings of these books and – like the process of adapting a book to film – almost forces the reader ask about the artistic correspondence across medium. Sometimes, the intent in jumping across form is clear, as with Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration with Chuck Hogan for The Strain in hopes of turning that series of novels into a television show. Occasionally, a novel is a passion project of its own eventually adapted to the medium of the author’s origins, like Ethan Hawke’s novel and subsequent film of The Hottest State. But rarer still is the work of a filmmaker-turned-novelist without the plans of taking the work in reverse – the novel meant simply to exist as a novel. Two directors have seen recent releases of written work seemingly intended to never make it off the page: David […]

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The Zero Theorem

Warning: This article is best read after having seen all the films in the title. Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is widely considered both an extension and revisitation of the dystopian themes the director so spectacularly explored in Brazil. Gilliam’s newest has even been categorized as a third part of a trilogy of dystopian science fiction satires – or, in Gilliam’s words, “Orwellian triptych” – following Brazil and 12 Monkeys. While Gilliam in interviews resists notions of a planned trilogy portraying future systems of control over almost thirty years, the Orwellian triptych carries remarkable similarities beyond these films’ driving conceits and Gilliam’s signature wide angles. The films of this trilogy portray individuals attempting to find truth and meaning beyond the dehumanizing systems in which they live, yet each protagonist is overcome by a sort-of predetermined fate and ultimately victimized by the alienating forces of technology. But the films of this trilogy are as notable for their stark differences as they are their similarities, and The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam fashioning his most discomfitingly ambiguous funhouse mirror of our present future yet.

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Teddy Roosevelt

As with any Ken Burns documentary, PBS’s The Roosevelts (having finished its second of seven two-hour episodes last night) features a trove of archival material including photographs, documents, newspaper headlines, excerpts of diaries and books reads by actors ranging from Meryl Streep to Billy Bob Thornton, and new footage from the preserved estates of the title characters. Yet what dominated yesterday’s entry (which takes place roughly between 1901 and 1909) was silent film footage of the United States’ 26th President, often brought to life for a sound-sync audience through music or even foley effects. While Burns’s films are known for their archival display, they don’t always contextualize how certain information is made available at certain points in history. Yet as The Roosevelts promises to cover over a century of ground between 1858 and 1962, the way information spread is a story that will inevitably be told, explicitly or implicitly. Between the early days of the moving image alongside the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century to Hollywood’s important role in rallying Americans during WWII, the story of how media develops in turn shapes how history is known.

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Breathless Movie

The legacy of the French New Wave looms large over modern film history, yet its legacy is decidedly messy, one that refuses to fit comfortably within one stable tradition or definition. The movement became popular alongside the rise of European art cinema during the late 1950s and early 1960s, yet many of its films preferred playfully anarchistic pastiche over a reverent approach to cinematic modernism. Unlike other European postwar filmmaking traditions, the French New Wave both loved and hated Hollywood filmmaking, with its members ranging from the political dissidence of Jean-Luc Godard’s work after 1965 to the cheeky MGM-invoking festivals of radiance that were Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals. And there were as many, if not more, consequential French filmmakers only tangentially associated with the New Wave as there were decidedly within it, with Alain Resnais and Louis Malle’s late 1950s work often awkwardly placed as its inciting texts. The French New Wave was a school without formal rules, without clear qualifications for induction, and without an interest in legibly framing its own legacy – its criteria required seemingly little else than a distinct expression of difference from what’s come before. But beyond the intellectual and artistic changes the French New Wave brought upon the greater cinematic landscape, no contribution of the movement is more apparent than the term New Wave itself, a term that both reinforces and confuses the French New Wave’s legacy each time it’s applied. And while “New Wave” might be a useful shorthand for recognizing significant shifts in filmmaking style […]

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Iron Man

In March, Evan Kindley asked a compelling question about musicians and their like-minded descendants: “Why is it that the kids of cult folk musicians (e.g. Kristy MacColl, Rufus Wainwright), often go on to respected solo careers while the offspring of major rock stars (e.g., Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon) are more often one-hit wonders flashes in the pan?” As Kindley and his responders note, there is no scientific basis in this observation, just a sense that the rules of cultural value apply differently when it comes to the offspring of marginal artistic figures – and, seemingly more often than not, those offspring find success in arenas more conventional than their parents. The world of filmmaking is similarly full of dynasties that produce children who seem to inherit opportunities (if not success) not immediately available outsiders. When the American Zoetrope logo introduces Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, for example, it’s easy to speculate the ways that the Coppola filmmaking legacy, and all its resources, afforded Roman an opportunity he may not have had otherwise. But while one’s status as the son or daughter of an independent, experimental, underground, or avant-garde filmmaker may similarly bear the weight and burden of a famous name, it cannot possibly work the same way in terms of economics and industry-based reputation. Being the offspring of a Filmmakers’ Co-Op co-founder might carry some cultural capital in certain circles, but rarely does that guarantee access to the actual capital needed to make a movie. It’s something […]

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published: 02.01.2015
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published: 01.31.2015
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published: 01.30.2015
published: 01.30.2015
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