May 23, 2013 at 8:39 am #102297
This likely best picture/actor/original screenplay nominee did well in the trade reviews:
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Cannes Film Review: ‘Nebraska’
May 23, 2013 | 06:17AM PT
Alexander Payne’s sixth feature is another low-concept, finely etched study of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves.
After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Black-and-white lensing and lack of a Clooney-sized star portend less than “Descendants”-sized business, but critical hosannas and awards buzz should mean solid prestige success for this November Paramount release.
SEE MORE: Cannes Film Festival
Just as “The Last Picture Show” was a movie made in the 1970s about the end of ’50s-era innocence, “Nebraska” feels, despite its present-day setting, like a eulogy for a bygone America (and American cinema), from the casting of New Hollywood fixtures Dern and Stacy Keach to its many windswept vistas of a vital agro-industrial heartland outsourced into irrelevance. First seen trudging alone along a busy stretch of Montana highway, Dern’s Woody Grant is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness, an ornery alcoholic whose bouts of confusion have put a strain on his marriage to Kate (“About Schmidt’s” June Squibb) and caused sons David (Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to worry that he might be losing his mind. Offering further evidence to support this claim, Woody has become convinced he’s won $1 million in a Publisher’s Clearing House-like sweepstakes — a prize he insists on collecting in person at the company’s HQ in Lincoln, Neb.
Though more levelheaded parties insist that the money is bogus, Woody cannot be deterred. Asked what he’ll do with his “winnings,” he announces his intention to buy a new truck — even though he can no longer drive — and a new air compressor (to replace one he loaned to a friend 40 years ago). But like the children’s playground commissioned by the dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” or the interstate tractor journey undertaken by the Iowa farmer of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” Woody’s quest is really a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. So David reluctantly agrees to take Dad on the road, as much out of pity as to escape his own broken-down situation, working a dead-end retail job and recently dumped by his live-in girlfriend.
What follows is, like many of Payne’s films, a road movie of sorts, winding its way through Wyoming and South Dakota, slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, last-stop diners standing on the edge of nowhere. The widescreen monochrome imagery, shot by Payne’s longtime d.p. Phedon Papamichael, is at once ravishing and melancholy, evoking both Robert Surtees’ “Picture Show” lensing and a host of iconic American still photography (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.) without calling undue attention to itself.
Eventually, father and son make a pit stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorn (actually, Norfolk, Neb.), where it doesn’t take long for the incipient millionaire to become headline news, like the ersatz war hero (also named Woody) at the center of Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero.” Nor does Woody seem to mind the attention, even as it brings all manner of moocher out of the woodwork, including more than a few family members and a former business partner (the coy, flinty Keach) with an old score to settle. Everyone, it seems, wants — or perhaps needs — to believe in Woody’s dream as much as he does.
Throughout, Payne gently infuses the film’s comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental. (A couple of nincompoop nephews, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, rep the pic’s only real concession to slapstick.) In a series of lovely, understated scenes, David finds himself learning secondhand about the taciturn father he has never really known, meeting an ex-flame (Angela McEwan) who competed with his mother for Woody’s affections, hearing rumors of a possible extramarital affair, gleaning details about Woody’s service in the Korean War. Finally, rejoined by Kate and Ross for the final leg of the journey, the entire family visits the farmhouse where Woody grew up, now a decrepit mausoleum of farm-belt prosperity. The closer the characters get to Lincoln, the more they appear to be receding into the past, culminating in one magnificent sequence that equates a drive down a small main street with the span of an entire life lived.
Dern is simply marvelous in a role the director reportedly first offered to Gene Hackman, but which is all the richer for being played by someone who was never as big of a star. Looking suitably disheveled and sometimes dazed, he conveys the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, resisting the temptation to overplay, letting his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing and indignation. Given the less innately attention-getting role (a la Tom Cruise in “Rain Man”), Forte does similarly nuanced work, his scenes with Dern resonating with the major and minor grievances that lie unresolved between parents and children. Had Payne not already used it, “The Descendants” would have been an equally apt title here, so acute is the film’s sense of the virtues and vices passed down from one generation to the next.
Keach and Squibb (bumped off early in “About Schmidt,” getting to go the full distance here) also stand out in a resolutely un-starry cast, full of convincingly ordinary, plainspoken Midwesterners. In addition to Papamichael’s camerawork, the plaintive guitar-and-fiddle score by Mark Orton is another craft standout.May 23, 2013 at 8:43 am #102299
Todd McCarthy/Hollywood Reporter
Alexander Payne’s in competition black-and-white film follows a father and son on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska.
A strong sense of a vanishing past holds sway over an illusory future in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s wryly poignant and potent comic drama about the bereft state of things in America’s oft-vaunted heartland. Echoing the director’s most recent film, The Descendants, in its preoccupation with generational issues within families, how the smell of money contaminates the behavior of friends and relatives and the way Wasps hide and disclose secrets, this is nonetheless a more melancholy, less boisterous work. It’s also defined commercially by the difference between a colorful, Hawaii-set comedy starring George Clooney and a black-and-white, prairie-based old-age odyssey featuring a straggly and unkempt Bruce Dern. All the same, Paramount Vantage should be able to ride accolades for this very fine Cannes competition entry to respectable specialized returns in fall release.
our editor recommends
“I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter,” largely sums up the attitude toward the events of his life by old Woody Grant (Dern), a cranky, bedraggled, partially senile coot first seen walking on a highway near home in Billings, Montana. His younger son David (Will Forte) wishes his father would be a bit more communicative, as he’d like closer relationship, but only his mother Kate (June Squibb) will talk about the old days and then only in the most derogatory terms about her “useless” husband and just about everyone else.
Woody’s hit the road because of a sweepstakes eligibility certificate he received in the mail that he imagines entitles him to a million-dollar cash windfall. No matter how plainly June and David explain that it’s a scam, nothing will dissuade Woody from walking, if need be, the 850 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska, the source of the deceptive document, to collect.
Conceding that his old man “just needs something to life for,” beleaguered David takes off work to drive him there just for the personal time it will give them. But while the ostensible focus of Bob Nelson’s original screenplay (the first for a Payne film the director did not officially have a hand in writing himself) is the father-son road trip, nearly all the peripheral characters that come into the picture develop motives related to expectations that Woody has come into mighty big bucks.
Befitting its Paramount heritage, there is a muted Preston Sturges element to the film’s view of the human condition in the way the populace’s heads are completely turned by the presence of celebrity, which the confused Woody now represents, and a possible financial windfall. Two of Sturges’s classics, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, turned on very similar premises.
Part of the issue is that there isn’t that much else to talk about. After brief stops at Mt. Rushmore, which Woody disdains because it “doesn’t look finished,” and a goofy interlude spent looking for his missing false teeth along some railway tracks, the two men stop for an impromptu family reunion in (fictional) Hawthorne, Nebraska, to visit Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his family. Joined by Kate and David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), the clan mostly sits around and watches TV; Ray’s overweight sons (Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray) are immature layabouts who, like the older men who come over, mostly talk about cars. While Payne tries to walk a fine line between honest representation and satiric caricature, the result is a pretty caustic group portrait of men who, whatever they may be feeling inside, are utterly undisposed to talk about it, representing one colossal failure to communicate that feels like a genetic male trait.
It falls, therefore, to the women to address the existence of an inner life, not only about themselves, but about the men who refuse self-reflection. Kate is utterly uncensored in her running commentaries about long-ago sexual shenanigans. But it is the odd women David meets around the tiny, forlorn town, notably a wonderful old soul at the town newspaper office (beautifully played by Angela McEwan), who disclose private information that opens a window on Woody’s life the son would otherwise never know.
Then there is Woody’s long-ago business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Each man claims the other owes him something but, now that he’s convinced Woody is loaded, Ed becomes threatening. Then all the relatives pile on, resulting in a group portrait of greed and mooching that is none too pretty.
The emptied-out look of Hawthorne makes it resemble the town in The Last Picture Show, but without the teenagers; there are only old people here, in the saloons and the streets, and other key settings—the cemetery, the newspaper morgue, the dilapidated farmhouse Woody grew up in and his father built—quietly contribute to the feel of time and opportunity having passed by.
In this light, Payne’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white—not an easy argument to win at a studio these days—enriches the film artistically; the story is set in a world that still, both in the cinematic and collective memory, exists in black-and-white. It’s stuck, like the leading characters, with decisions made decades ago and that is still defined by the past and a diminishing number of survivors.
At times in his career, Dern has played characters as half-loonies when it wasn’t necessarily called for. Here, portraying a man well on his way to being checked out, he underplays without a trace of neurosis or mannerism. Woody is a man who will give starts of recognition to anyone who has had parents or grandparents of diminishing abilities, and Dern and Payne keep him interesting by providing flashes of consciousness discernible behind his general inscrutability. The performance is like a window blind that’s mostly closed but can momentarily flip open to reveal what’s in the room.
Forte nicely underplays an incipient sad sack who would dearly like to enrich an uneventful life by learning more about his father but can only do so indirectly, while Squibb gets the most laughs by virtue of her colorful litany of complaints. Keach applies very fine contours to his role of an old man all too alive to what he considers unfinished business. Great care is evident in casting down to the smallest bit player.
Phedon Papamichael’s handsome monochromatic cinematography is neither ostentatious nor overly gritty, just forthright and elegantly composed, while Mark Orton’s lovely score, which often employs just a guitar in combination with an array of individual second instruments, provides a constant source of pleasure.May 23, 2013 at 8:45 am #102300
Dir: Alexander Payne. US. 2013. 110mins
A wry, somewhat downbeat comedy in the vein of The Straight Story, Nebraska sees Alexander Payne return to the road trip in this affecting story of a taciturn old man with advancing dementia, played by Bruce Dern, who insists on travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son to claim a $1 million lottery prize which is clearly a scam.
While Nebraska is a wry comedy, the humour just adds a gloss to its main thrust, which is a tribute to America’s heartland and the generations who came, worked, and ultimately, the film suggests, lost this terrain.
Shot in lustrous black and white by Phedon Panamichael, a decision which emphasises the bleakness of its battered Midwestern terrain, Nebraska pays tribute to the stoic seniors who have lived a hard life in these dented, dingy towns of America’s heartland but takes an uneasy vantage point in which some of the laughs are affectionate and respectful yet others can feel a little cheap and mean-spirited.
Nebraska is much stronger when it starts speaks subtly of the past, through a son (Will Forte) who begins to piece together his father’s troubled life, and the relationship between his squabbling parents in this smaller-scale work from Payne.
Dern’s leading performance, supported by the wonderful June Squibb and a great cameo from Stacy Keach, should find a response come awards time and help attract smaller-scale, upmarket audiences to Payne’s work while not quite achieving the reach of Sideways or Election. Fans of the director will see a return to form after The Descendents.
Payne’s black-and-white view of his home terrain is stark with, at times, an almost Depression-era feel, starting in Billings, Montana – “the magic city” – with Woody Grant (Dern) determinedly walking down the freeway to claim his lottery winnings when he’s picked up by a policeman and brought home by his son, David (Forte). Woody’s outspoken, misanthropic wife June says it’s time to put him in a home, but electronics salesman David argues with his TV anchorman brother Ross (Odenkirk) to be more sympathetic to an elusive father who has always been uncommunicative, as well as a lifelong drunk.
Travelling through Wyoming – they detour to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – Woody ends up with a gash in his head after a drunken fall in Rapid City and they take a side trip to his home town of Hawthorne for what becomes a family reunion. Woody, it transpires, has six surviving brothers. Pieces of their story emerge – a Swedish father, a Lutheran upbringing, siblings who died, and military service in Korea.
This is where Nebraska is at its strongest. Meanwhile, as news of Woody’s lottery win circulates through Hawthorne, various “friends” including Woody’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Keach) discover debts they’d like to be repaid. This is where Nebraska can stumble, when the characterisation of simple farming folk takes a turn towards the portraying them as simpletons.
Whenever things falter, though, there’s always June Sqibb as bitchy, complaining matriarch Kate to steal the show, positioning herself as the hottest thing in town back in the day. Against her, Forte’s performance can seem anemic, and the character of David fades into the dramatic scenery.
While Nebraska is a wry comedy, the humour just adds a gloss to its main thrust, which is a tribute to America’s heartland and the generations who came, worked, and ultimately, the film suggests, lost this terrain. This is where Nebraska is at its most powerful, and this is the picture that will resonate after the laughs subside.
Of note is Dennis Washington’s production design, captured sadly by Papamichael. The at-times jaunty, guitar-led score can be at odds, sometimes jarringly, with these visualsMay 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm #102301
As I mentioned in another thread, the only thing holding me back from predicting this film all-around is the fact that Payne is directing a screenplay he didn’t write. I’ve liked every film he’s made so far, loved 2-3 of them, and he wrote the screenplays for all. Reviews have made me more confident, but I will likely feel as though something is missing.
If this film ends up being as good as suggested, then this could be Payne’s big Picture/Director winner. Payne usually writes screenplays far too sophisticated for any Academy branches beyond the writers to actually reward, so if this outside writer is giving him a more accessible film to make, it could be his ace in the hole.May 23, 2013 at 1:15 pm #102302
Sasha Stone, who loves the film, calls it his most personal.
Remember his other films were adaptations, not originals. In this case, as director, it is very difficult according to WGA rules for a director to get credit for someone else’s original screenplay unless s/he made substantial contributions to its oriignal story. My guess is that he “adapted” this without getting credit as much as he did his other films.May 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm #102303
Citizen Ruth is an original screenplay, is it not?May 23, 2013 at 1:53 pm #102304
Amend that to other screenplay nominated films.May 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm #102305
A mixed to positive review from Indiewire’s The Playlist blog:
Cannes Review: Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ An Overfamiliar Tale Of Connections Broken & Remade
by Jessica KiangMay 23, 2013 6:32 AM
There’ve been great masses of critical laurels laid at Alexander Payne’s door over the years, some, in our eyes, more earned than others. When it really hits home, the director’s quiet humanism and wry humor can yield perceptive insights, especially into certain trademark areas of expertise: family dynamics, the vanities and follies of aging men, the reluctance to let go of old dreams. But the downside to this kind of blanket approbation is that, because we know what to look for in an Alexander Payne movie, sometimes we might kid ourselves that we find things that aren’t really there. And so, we come trundling to “Nebraska,” already being buzzed about as a major player here in Cannes, and certainly not a bad film in any way, but one that failed to engage us with anything like the kind of witty perceptiveness we found in, for example, “Sideways,” to reference the other two-man road trip-style film of Payne’s. A journey whose destination is clearly signposted from the very beginning, too often we found ourselves staring out of the windows at a blank and featureless landscape; our trip to “Nebraska” got us where we needed to go in the end, but didn’t take the most interesting or diverting route.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he’s won a million dollars in what is in fact, as his son David (Will Forte) repeatedly tells him, a marketing exercise for a Nebraska-based publishing company. But following Woody’s refusal to give up on his repeated attempts to walk to Lincoln from Billings, Montana, and against the insistence of his hectoring wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son, a local news anchor, David decides to drive him to Lincoln himself. But if David’s hoping to bond with his father, on the early part of the journey Woody makes that difficult, getting drunk, suffering a nasty gash to his head, losing his teeth, all of which causes them to lose time and eventually to take a detour to stay with some long-unseen relatives in Hawthorne, the town where Woody grew up. Once the townspeople get hold of the idea that Woody’s going to be a millionaire, what should be a simple, brief homecoming becomes more complicated.
In fact, “Nebraska” is not wholly the road movie its log-line suggested, as in large part the meat of the plot and characterization takes place in Hawthorne, where Woody enjoys sudden local hero status, and David discovers new things about his father and how he is perceived by those who knew him way back when. But one of the issues we had with this portion was that the rounding out of Woody’s character and back-story happens largely at the expense of the local citizens, relatives and townspeople — in trying to make us understand Woody, Payne kind of makes us despise almost everyone else, notably the film’s “villain” Ed (the terrific Stacy Keach). There is a troubling air of condescension in the portrayal of a lot of these folks as either venal and grasping, or just plain stupid. While there are some laughs to be had as a result — especially around the unpreprossessing cousins Bart and Cole — they are laughs at, not with, and they leave a slight sour taste. Better are the quieter moments of less judgmental observation, like the roomful of old men who only break their long stretches of TV-bound silence to talk about cars, and the extended gag about the sons stealing back the compressor that their father had stolen from him all those years back.
Of course, the film is largely a two-hander and so really lives or dies on its performances. Dern is great for this role, but again kind of feels almost destined to be overpraised for a performance that doesn’t require a huge amount from him above “curmudgeon.” But there is a tiny moment of almost-pleasure that shows on his face near the end, in contrast to the blank wild-haired stares elsewhere, that’ll make it hard for us to argue with those who will passionately champion his contribution, so fair enough. Forte, for us, was more problematic. With the narrative of these performances practically already set in stone as soon as the cast was announced, it feels churlish to suggest that the casting-against-type of “Saturday Night Live” comedian Will Forte as Dern’s dutiful and slightly hangdoggish son, is anything but a roaring, surprising success. Truth is, especially in the stagier scenes that require him to do the emotional dance around his stoic and unresponsive father, the stretchmarks show a little as he tries to expand to fill the role, and instead comes over as overly rehearsed. The music too, is initially sweet and welcome but as the film wears on the “heartland America” vibe starts to grate in its heavy-handedness — one particular musical motif becomes especially insistent as time goes on, and if we were feeling unkind we could liken its use to having someone in the seat next to you repeat the word “bittersweet” in your ear ad infinitum, in case you weren’t too sure how you should be feeling.
If it’s sounding like we hated the film, we really didn’t, those are simply the elements that didn’t work for us. In general, it’s well-intentioned enough in its father-son dynamic for us to find it an amiable vehicle to hitch our attention to for a couple of hours. The black and white does lend things a melancholic air, though it’s not so dazzling that we can’t imagine it’ll look just fine on the small screen in color too, and the sour-sweet mix, so important to this kind of comedy, errs impressively, if not always convincingly on the sour side, with very few moments of kindness not undercut by something meaner, until we get to the small uplift of the final moments. Really, “Nebraska” is a small-scale quixotic adventure about the importance of dreams, no matter how pie-eyed, in which the outlined flaws could all be forgiven, if it just went somewhere a bit more surprising. As it is, “Nebraska” follows preplanned route map just too faithfully for us to take it fully to our hearts. [B-]September 2, 2013 at 7:27 pm #102306
Per the Wrap, Nebraska was wildly popular at Telluride, and Dern is in a two man race to win best actor:
Bruce Dern’s ‘Nebraska’ Victory Lap Runs Through Telluride
After playing “Fifth Cowboy From the Right” for 30 years, the veteran character actor “left myself the hell alone” in Alexander Payne’s beloved movie
Published: September 02, 2013 @ 9:10 am
The international community may have liked it well enough at Cannes, but Colorado really, really loves “Nebraska.” In its four screenings in Telluride, Alexander Payne’s film has proven as beloved and buzz-prompting as anything at the fest – and that’s saying something in a weekend that’s also seen attendees almost universally rapturous over “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.”
Even against slavery and space epics, the heartland has a fighting chance after all.
Bruce Dern won best actor at Cannes for “Nebraska,” and some Telluride-goers are convinced it’ll be a two-man Oscar race between him and “12 Years” leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor. You could hardly imagine two different actors or roles, and voters may face an impossible choice between boosting a face of the future or rewarding an unlikely valedictory triumph.
At a Sunday panel in Telluride’s downtown park, Dern talked about how Payne came to him early in the filming and told him, “Let us do our jobs!” The director’s blunt message was that Dern should dial it down while playing a highly cranky, highly vulnerable, borderline-doddering dad who mistakenly thinks he’s won a million bucks in a magazine sweepstakes.
As Dern related it, Payne told him to stop trying so hard to give a performance. “That’s what we did,” Dern said. “The risk for me was to trust myself that I could be interesting enough to leave myself the hell alone…
“When you play the Fifth Cowboy From the Right for 30 goddamn years, especially when you start with Mr. Kazan [and end up as] the outsider with one or two lines, [you feel] that you’ve gotta be the most interesting Fifth Cowboy From the Right there ever was.
“So you push, and you act, and at times you pretend. I got tired of doing that when I met Alexander and I said, ‘I just want to be a human being.’”
But Payne cheerfully saluted Dern’s outsized persona when he introduced the actor at Sunday night’s screening. “I wish to point out that we have with us tonight Bruce Dern,” the director said. “So if you enjoy or not enjoy or whatever his performance, he’d be only too delighted to say hi to you after the screening.”
Payne also talked about the extended gestation for “Nebraska,” telling the audience at the Werner Herzog Theatre that Bob Nelson’s screenplay had first come to him through the producers of “Election” nine years ago.
(As an aside, he noted that “Election” is “still my mother’s favorite among my films. When she saw this one, she said, ‘Yeah, it’s okay — why can’t you make one more like ‘Election’?’”)
“Nebraska” is Payne’s sixth feature – and, he said, the one on which he did the least amount of writing. “I did some rewriting on it, to be sure, but I did not originate it nor did I seek screenplay credit on it.
“It’s really the vision of the screenwriter I was fulfilling. He’s a guy I had never heard of nor do I know much about, though I’ve met him and he’s an extremely nice guy. His name is Bob Nelson, out of Suquamish, Washington, which I’d heard of only from Bob and Ray routines. He used to spend summers back in Hartington, Nebraska — population about 1600 — and he wrote this screenplay based on memories of those summers with his father and his father’s seven brothers back there.”
So why’d a script this swell take almost a decade to get off the ground? “It’s a road movie to some degree, and I didn’t want to follow up ‘Sideways’ with another road movie,” Payne explained, expressing “gratitude toward the screenwriter and the producers for their patience in waiting for me to get some other stuff out of my system before circling back around to it.
“But Bruce Dern is the right age and the right temperament now. And whatever’s happening in the culture at large, the winds of culture blowing though the film, worked out fine.”September 5, 2013 at 9:27 am #102307
Apparently Nebraska has broken new ground with the earliest ever hosted Oscar member screening – Stacy Keach hosted one in the last couple days in Malibu, apparently to enthusiastic response.September 5, 2013 at 11:31 am #102308
Pete Hammond/Deadline Hollywood just now, in the middle of his Toronto preview, threw in this about Nebraska, which isn’t playing at Toronto:
By the way Nebraska really popped at Telluride, a consensus favorite there doing even better than it did in Cannes competition. Director Alexander Payne told me he “tinkered” with the film for some time after its Cannes debut to get it to the place he wanted. Obviously he made the right choice. This one looks like it could be a major player at the Oscars, you can just feel it. “People just want a comedy right now, ” explained a modest Payne about the reception it received in the Rockies last week.September 8, 2013 at 9:18 pm #102309
JUST managed to get a ticket for this at NYFF earlier today. Scheduled for Saturday, October 12th!September 8, 2013 at 9:21 pm #102310
Looking forward to your reaction….September 17, 2013 at 11:10 am #102311
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