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Bxx: Haunted (Web Series)

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Daniel Knauf's Bxx: Haunted ReviewStarring Jeffery Bell, Kalinda Gray, Lynda Reynoso, Ryan Hannah King, Brent McGregor, Michael O’Connell, Kayte Arnett

Created and written by Daniel Knauf

Directed by Cliff Osmond


When Daniel Knauf (“Carnivale”, “Spartacus: Vengeance”) created what he calls the Bxx narrative, he had to create new tools just to write the script. By opening up new dimensions in storytelling, he couldn’t rely on the tools that worked for him in the past on traditional projects.

I find myself in the same situation. This is going to be a slightly unconventional review because all of the usual methods of critique don’t quite apply here. This is a new kind of storytelling so a new form of critiquing that storytelling is needed. This is going to be a long review. Much like Haunted itself. For future Bxx projects I’m sure I’ll find a way to trim it down, but for now I need some room. Bear with me; it’s worth your while.

I have to start off by letting you know just what a Bxx narrative is.

Upon entering a Bxx site, you’re presented with controls to view the action of a linear narrative from different vantage points. Using those controls, you view the story. It’s entirely up to you how you view the story. You can skip around, watch it in chronological order, whatever you like. If you find a conversation or character that you want to follow, you can do so and ignore those you don’t care about.

That’s the innovation of Bxx: Tt’s the first multi-threaded narrative. It’s not exactly interactive, as a video game would be, in that you don’t influence the narrative in any way. This isn’t a “choose your own adventure” book converted to video. However, you control what you see, when you see it, what order you see it in, and how much time you spend on the story. You can view the entire story in a few hours, or hundreds of them – it depends on what you want to see.

So if that’s what Bxx is, what is Bxx: Haunted?

Haunted is best described as a prototype. Made for very little money and a great deal of sweat and crowd-sourced labor, Haunted is designed to be an example of what the Bxx narrative can do. This is where things get tricky: Both the technology and the format are prototypes, but so are the story and the performances. This is entirely new from top to bottom. Just like Bxx will split off from plot to plot, here’s where the review is going to split.

The Bxx Narrative and Technology

First I’m going to talk about the Bxx concept and the technology used in this specific application. This has to be considered separately from this exact story because the concept can fail while the story sails, and vice versa.

In the case of Bxx: Haunted (watch it here), you’re presented with an interface upon entering the site. The “dashboard” is a blueprint of a house. Inside this blueprint there are icons to select sixteen different cameras. Up top there are controls to select exact segments of time from the beginning to the end, thirty-two hours later. Segments are six minutes long. So, for each segment of time you have sixteen vantage points to view what happened in the house during that segment.

Daniel Knauf's Bxx: Haunted Review

While the story isn’t interactive, there is definitely a strong element of exploration, and that exploration is rewarded. As you follow the narrative, you collect evidence. If a character in a segment shoots a video on a handheld camera, or mentions a historical point, that item might be unlocked for you in the Evidence, Background, or Investigation tabs at the top of the interface. This allows you to dig deeper into the story, if you choose. Some of these are available from the beginning, which will allow you shortcuts to the “action”. If an investigator report says they saw something at a certain time on a specific camera, it’s easy to jump to that point and see what they saw.

Telling the tale of a paranormal investigation that goes very, very wrong, Bxx: Haunted implements an interface that fits the theme and works into the story. The sixteen cameras are placed there by the team to capture activity and record the investigation. In the case of Haunted, everything technical fits into the story itself. All video, audio, and other evidence is collected on-screen or otherwise fits directly into the narrative. Conceivably, a Bxx story could be written without giving a narrative excuse for the camera presences, but in this case everything is part of the tale.

The interface is intuitive. There’s a brief intro upon entering the site if you have trouble, but I spent weeks on the site before the intro was available and was never confused. Sliding the timeline control can be a little tricky when choosing a precise time, and selecting segments can be a little confusing. Once you find your segment, however, following the action is incredibly easy. This is one of the benefits of this type of project as opposed to other formats: They can make changes as they like, based on feedback from their users. The controls were almost completely redesigned between the closed beta and the public launch based on such feedback, for example.

I found a specific rhythm to how I followed things within just a few segments. I imagine most viewers would do the same. You can open multiple cameras and have them sync up, start one camera and then start another and have them out of sync so you can see action being referred to in the first happening in the second, etc. There’s a bit of creativity to how you want to take in the story, and this part of the Bxx concept works absolutely perfectly.

The primary roadblock that Haunted runs into is a technical one: The audio on the clips leaves a great deal to be desired. Likely due to budget limitations and exacerbated by the location chosen, the microphones on the cameras are relatively poor. Loud noises cause them to distort and fuzz out so when there’s shouting, it’s easy to lose what’s being said. Their sensitivity works against them in other areas as well. When someone is speaking softly, it’s extremely difficult to hear them…not because the mics can’t pick them up, but because they almost always pick up louder noises and voices in other areas of the relatively small house which drown out the softer talking. This is a critical problem, as people tend to talk softly when discussing critical plot points and loudly when they’re just shooting the breeze. While the actor who played Emil Grant did an amazing job, his voice is dramatically louder than the others, and if he’s in another part of the house while a quiet conversation is going on, you’re often going to hear him even though he’s a room or two away. It’s not his fault at all, just a limitation of the technology used, combined with the small location.

The video quality is solid enough for this project. It’s not amazing, but you never get frustrated trying to see a detail. It’s even clear enough to detect things such as palette shifts that denote plot points. Future projects will be in HD according to Knauf, which would be nice, but not as necessary as improved audio or even limited ADR to patch in important conversations that are lost.

None of this is a dealbreaker. Understanding that this is a prototype makes it easy to understand that issues such as the poor microphones and small, echo-prone location would easily be remedied with a bigger budget and with lessons learned. There’s still plenty here to enjoy; it’s just mildly frustrating at times. If you run into one, just move along; there’s more after it.

As for how the Bxx narrative works as a concept, Haunted does effectively prove what can be done. Within just a few hours on the site, I had probably half a dozen ideas of what could be done in various genres using the concept. I’m not sure it’s the next evolution in storytelling, as Knauf claims, but it shows enough promise to be a new and exciting way to present fictional stories using the technology of the web.

So that’s the Bxx concept and tech in this application; now I need to talk about the story.

Bxx: Haunted, The Story

In Haunted we join the investigation of a house that’s seen no small amount of horror. Dr. Jeremy Johnson and his team of three have won the right to do one last investigation of what’s known as the Blaylock House, named after its final occupants. They’re joined by Elizabeth Escobar, a psychic who was present during the last investigation of the house over a decade before, and Emil Grant, a lawyer with CalTrans, who now own the house and plan on demolishing it two days later to make room for a freeway expansion.

With sixteen cameras capturing the investigation, these six people plan to spend forty-eight hours inside the house in an attempt to prove the existence of an afterlife.

Things do not go well.

This project was shot entirely in real time. This has to be said upfront. I’ve wracked my movie-nerd brain and can’t think of another ensemble piece shot for thirty-two hours continuously, with no cuts or edits. Hasn’t happened before. These six performers have accomplished the unthinkable in acting out this story over that length of time with no breaks, having to sleep on camera multiple times, while staying in character, reacting to special effects not yet added, and pushing through a narrative. This, alone, makes Haunted worth watching. It’s an astounding feat of acting, and everyone involved does an incredible job. There are no bad performances, no one slacks, no one phones it in after twenty-four hours. Phenomenal. As an effort of acting and filmmaking, no one has had the testicular fortitude to even attempt something like this, even in experimental film. The fact that Knauf and his troupe have pulled it off on the first attempt is nothing short of miraculous.

Unfortunately, the project doesn’t do them as much service as it could. The primary problem that Haunted faces is that there’s just too much of it. You have thirty-two hours of story, spread out over hundreds of hours of segments across sixteen vantage points. When you figure that a lengthy season of narrative television would be twenty-four hours, all edited to focus on only what action needed to be told, you can see the potential trouble. There’s just no way to fill thirty-two hours of eventful story here. Even with the ability to skip forward using the controls, doing so is risky. You skip ahead a few hours, and suddenly you’ve missed a vital conversation or a paranormal event that matters to the plot. Then you backtrack, and you spend almost as much time as you’ve skipped picking up the breadcrumbs. It’s just a huge meal to ingest, and I’m afraid many viewers will give up before they pick up every important morsel of story.

The story needs a great deal of tightening. Well, that even gets tricky. Perhaps it wasn’t the story so much as the planning. Or how the actors played it out. Without knowing the inner-workings of how this project came off, there’s no way to know exactly where the problem lies.

In future Bxx projects, this has to be the primary lesson learned, and chances are Knauf and team already realize this. The key points of the story and plenty of spooky moments could have fit into sixteen hours, easily. That’s half the time, which is a massive cut.

There’s quite a bit done to attempt to make that time interesting. Paranormal events happen frequently, and that’s my second issue. They happen a little too frequently. Again likely due to the limitations of this project’s budget, there isn’t enough variety to the spooky goings-on. After a few hours of disembodied voices and specters appearing in one or two locations, it becomes a bit routine. With more money I’m certain this would have been quite different. In Haunted, however, it has to be noted.

There is also one problem inherent to the Bxx concept. Unlike other storytelling methods, it’s entirely possible to miss major plot points. Even while tracking things as closely as possible, you could spend over a month watching every segment thoroughly so you’re going to need to skip. When you do, it’s very easy to miss that one conversation or event. I did and had to go back when the ending didn’t make much sense. Whether this is a plus or a minus is up to you. I honestly didn’t mind it. With Bxx you get out what you put in. In the case of Haunted, in order to get everything, you’re going to be dedicating a lot of time. In future Bxx projects that will likely be reduced dramatically, but for now you have to be ready to dive in and poke around quite a bit to sort out every detail.

The overall message is simple: Less is more.

All that sounds relatively negative, but believe it or not, I don’t intend it to be. The story here IS solid and IS entertaining. I said I’ve spent weeks in the Bxx, and that’s not just because I needed to bring a review to you guys. It’s addictive. You find yourself saying “one more segment” and then move ahead to the next… and the next. Knauf certainly knows how to tell a story. This isn’t one of his more complex tales, but considering the fact that this is a prototype, I imagine that was intentional. Still, you have detailed, fleshed-out characters engaged in interesting things. The plot is interesting and not predictable. The finale is shocking, fitting, and provides resolution while also leaving the door open for a return to the world of Haunted. When Haunted shines, it shines extremely bright. The project is littered with excellent moments, visceral and emotional, touching and frightening.

Haunted does require patience, and a good deal of forgiveness, but the price is right. Due to the experimental nature of Haunted, it’s free for all. Just hop on, and you can see everything you want. Like I always say, it’s better because it’s free. For the price of your time, you are going to get a hell of a lot of entertainment. The concept works, the story works, and while there are both technical and narrative issues, Haunted is a heck of a lot of fun.

Settle in, some dark night, in a comfy chair. Perhaps with a glass of good wine. Plug some earphones into your computer. Log onto bxxweb.com. Start watching segments. Check out the evidence. Explore what you want, follow the characters you’re interested in, examine the footage as the story unfolds. You won’t regret it. It’s not perfect, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

3 1/2 out of 5

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Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political

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Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside

Directed by Eitan Gafny

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.

Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.

Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.

The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.

The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Yafit Shalev as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.

So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.

Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.

The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.

Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.

  • Children of the Fall
2.5

Summary

While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.

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User Rating 3 (7 votes)
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Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama

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Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein

Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.

The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.

Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.

The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.

While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.

All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.

  • Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club
3.5

Summary

Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.

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User Rating 3.3 (10 votes)
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Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!

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Beyond the 7th DoorStarring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman

Directed by B.D. Benedikt

Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision


Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.

Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.

Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.

The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.

Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.

The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.

The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.

There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.

“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.

“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.

Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
  • Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
  • The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
  • Beyond the Seventh Door
  • Special Features
3.5

Summary

Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.

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User Rating 3.4 (20 votes)
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