A DOG’S PURPOSE

Co-written by Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, W. Bruce Cameron and Wally Wolodarsky and directed by Lasse Hallström, A Dog’s Purpose, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron, is the touching tale of one dog’s search for his place and the meaning of life. As his soul travels far and wide in search of his favorite boy, he learns many things, but the most important lesson, is the importance of love. Quaint, and lovable, much like our canine friends themselves, this film will warm your heart. (LMB: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Lindsy M. Bissonnette

The film starts out with a hazy sequence of colored light particles floating delicately across the screen as stream of consciousness dialogue by one male voice (Josh Gad) begins to question the meaning of life of man’s best friend. Through the first few minutes of the film, the dog spirit, or soul, does not live very long in it’s new body, but is finally placed in the body of a stubborn retriever who escapes a makeshift pound, only to be picked up by two greedy men with hopes of making a sale. When the two goons leave the dog in the car in sweltering heat, 8-year old “Ethan” (Bryce Gheisar) hears its cries, and with the help of “Mom” (Juliet Rylance) they rescue the dog and bring him home. After the approval from alcoholic “Dad” (Luke Kirby), “Bailey” (Josh Gad) is one of the family.

As Ethan grows up (played by actor K.J. Apa) so does Bailey, and the two are inseparable, but as no life can last forever, Bailey passes away in the arms of his beloved family. Then it is back to hazy light particles and stream of consciousness as Bailey tries to understand his purpose in life.  His love and attachment for Ethan have him feeling extremely guilty for leaving so soon. As Ethan grows into a man (played by actor Dennis Quaid), so does the spirit of Bailey, despite the many lives he (and sometimes she) has lived, Bailey does everything he can to make sure he sees his boy one last time.

All controversy aside, A Dog’s Purpose has its touching moments. The film brings in a Buddhist perspective of reincarnation that is interesting to watch unfold, and also plays on one’s emotions in all the right places. Bailey is a part of his owners lives for just the right amount of time, he gives them joy, and brings them closer with their loved ones, but then his time is up and a heart wrenching goodbye is due. The consciousness of Bailey is reborn into the canine body of many different breeds including the retriever seen for the majority of the film, a German shepherd, a corgi and others, so there is something for every dog lover in the film.

The film’s problems lie in the writing. The dialogue is disjointed, possibly from the five writers working on the screenplay, in addition to the novel it is based on. The writing makes the film’s dialogue awkward and unnatural. These are mainly the scenes between Ethan and his high school sweetheart, “Hannah” (Britt Robertson), where the dialogue is meant to feel natural, but feels quite the opposite. Moments of Bailey’s commentary, which is peppered throughout the dialogue, sometimes makes up for it, but not enough to cover the main writing problems. In addition to the dialogue, the narrative itself is a bit inconsistent. At times the story is told through the voice of Bailey, when he barks we understand what he is saying thanks to the voice of Josh Gad, but at other times Bailey only barks and there is no understanding of what he is saying.

© Lindsy M. Bissonnette FF2 Media (1/27/17)

Top Photo: Ethan and Bailey playing on the lawn.

Middle Photo: Reincarnated Bailey in a cardboard box on then back of a truck.

Bottom Photo: Ethan and Bailey united at last.

Photo Credits: Joseph Lederer

Q: Does A Dog’s Purpose pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.
This is a small cast film, and there are few female characters. Hannah and Ethan’s mother rarely interact, and there isn’t a scene between just the two of them. There is a sequence where Bailey is reincarnated as a “girl” but her owner is a male. There is another sequence where Bailey has a female owner, but she only interacts with males and Bailey (as Tino, a corgi).

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THE RESURRECTION OF GAVIN STONE

Opens this Friday (1/20/17) in NYC. Review coming soon!

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STRIKE A POSE (2016)

Co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, Strike A Pose (2016) catches up with the troupe of backup dancers that accompanied Madonna on her 1990 "Blonde Ambition" tour. Reliving the tour stirs up a host of emotions for the seven men, as we follow each one’s story through the tour and onward to see how the AIDS crisis, the dancers’ later lawsuit against Madonna, and their bonds with each other, have affected their lives since the tour. (GPG: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

The film begins with an introduction of each of the dancers: Luis, Oliver, Carlton, Salim, Jose, and Kevin—with the seventh dancer, Gabriel, only described by the others, having been lost to AIDS five years after the tour. They each tell us how they got involved with the tour and about their first club trip with Madonna, who decided to take the new dancers out partying before hiring them officially. We then get to see how the dancers and Madonna grow into a family backstage, to the thumping beat of some of Madonna’s biggest hits.

The familial feelings between the dancers, and Madonna’s motherly relationship to them, was also documented in the documentary of the tour called Truth or Dare. Truth or Dare is remembered for sparking controversy over the infamous gay kiss depicted between dancers Gabriel and Salim during a session of the film’s eponymous game. Truth or Dare also led to the dancers’ lawsuit, as Madonna failed to get their permission to use footage of the kiss. The legal battle led to a rift between Madonna and the dancers that has not been bridged to this day, though the dancers make it clear in Strike A Pose that they hold no ill will against her.

The most valuable aspect of Strike A Pose, though, is the window it opens into these men’s experiences of being gay over the past three decades while navigating the AIDS crisis. There is a whole lost generation of LGBT people who would be in middle age today were it not for AIDS, which makes the first-person accounts of those who survived that harrowing period all the more valuable in memorializing those who did not.

However, a stronger stance from Ms. Gould and Mr. Zwaan on why this happened would have taken the film to the next level. This 21st century member of the LGBT community feels the film would have been improved by a direct acknowledgement that the conservatives shown trying to block Madonna’s tour for religious reasons, were also the ones blocking research on AIDS and denying support to its victims.

On the whole, the dancers’ stories are compelling, and the dancers themselves are lovable, interesting people. Madonna’s music feels vital and liberating when it is sampled, and the dancers’ reunion dinner is a lovely end note for the experience. A fun and informative retrospective on people who have lived incredible lives!

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto FF2 Media (1/22/17)

Top Photo: Madonna with the dancers in a promotional photo for the tour.

Middle Photo: Madonna with the dancers on the Blonde Ambition world tour.

Bottom Photo: The seven dancers in the present day.

Photo credits: Bond 360

Q: Does Strike A Pose pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No.

While the film was spearheaded by a female filmmaker, the focus on the male dancers’ experiences keeps it from passing the Bechdel-Wallace test.

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THE SUNSHINE MAKERS

The Sunshine Makers is a highly compelling documentary about the 1960s psychedelic movement and the rise and fall of LSD. The men and women who used hallucinogens to make it through a tumultuous decade are profiled, detailing how acid users continue to believe that psychedelic drugs lead to enlightenment and transcendence. (GEP: 4/5)

Review by Social Media Manager Georgiana E. Presecky

There was a prevalent amount of hatred and violence in the whirlwind 1960s. According to the film’s subjects Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, acid trips were one way to escape all of that in favor of a more peaceful, connected, loving feeling. These two men were in the drug business at the time, producing unbelievable amounts of hallucinogens called “orange sunshine” in order to fulfill the mission they repeat throughout the film: “turn the world on.”

Both men begin the film by lovingly reflecting on their first acid trips, describing the experience as life-changing and “transcendent.” Their journey and partnership is laid out clearly and chronologically – everything from producing to smuggling to selling the drugs. They explain the feeling of being on acid and how LSD affects people, the science of making it and the art of “not getting busted.”

These aren’t just two dudes in a garage cooking meth – they have a history of working with scientists and even psychologists to produce pure LSD and move forward with what they call “the psychedelic movement.” The history of the drug culture in this particular decade is also chronicled - not just from the druggies’ perspective, but also from members of law enforcement. It profiles the investigation and eventual arrests of Scully and Sand, and the punishment they faced for trying to “save the world” with the illegal production and sale of orange sunshine.

As these quirky hippies talk about the connection they feel to the world when on LSD, it’s so poetic and obviously meaningful to them that it becomes almost normal in the mind of the viewer - you essentially forget that they’re talking about psychedelic drugs and the process of illegally making and selling them, all while under the influence. This drug made them feel genuinely spiritually connected to the world around them – it gave them the feeling that “it was going to work out.” These men believed they were doing something good for people in a time when it didn’t feel like there was much good to go around. This unique (and arguably skewed) perspective is one you won’t get in history books, which makes it all the more captivating.

However, lines like “we affected more souls than Jesus because Jesus didn’t have no acid” quickly break the viewer out of that accepting state - but it doesn’t make The Sunshine Makers any less interesting or well-told.

The Sunshine Makers is straightforward and interesting, in spite of its controversial subject matter. The film's real strength lies in the fact that it's impossible to figure out whether Sand and Scully's supposedly good intentions in manufacturing acid are just a front for something more sinister and greedy - you'll stay 'til the end to try and figure it out, and maybe even then the answer remains elusive and ambiguous - but still just as fascinating as stories like "Breaking Bad" - a television show touted on the film's poster (pictured above). It might sugarcoat the negative impact of narcotics and addiction, but writers Connie Littlefield and Cosmo Feilding-Mellen thankfully never sugarcoat the eventual consequences for the members of its “movement.”

© Georgiana E. Presecky FF2 Media (1/20/17)

Middle Photo: Real news clips from the time of the subjects' arrests are frequently used as B roll throughout the documentary.

Bottom Photo: Scully and Sand today.

Photo credits: Passion Pictures Films

Q: Does The Sunshine Makers pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No.

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THE BYE BYE MAN

Director Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man centers on a group of possessed college students who try their best not to spread their knowledge of a name that brings hallucinations, fear and even death when spoken. (GEP: 3/5)

Review by Social Media Manager Georgiana E. Presecky

The frightening pull of the titular Bye Bye Man is staved off by the film’s repeated phrase, “don’t say it, don’t think it,” which, funnily enough, will be my reaction if anyone brings this film up to me in the future. Please, just don’t say it.

College student Elliot (Douglas Smith) moves into a creepy off-campus house with his girlfriend and best friend in the film’s long exposition, which involves the usual tropes – creaking doors, flickering lights, mysterious noises and dusty, dark basements. Say it with me now: “What could possibly go wrong?”

This slow beginning takes an intriguing turn when Elliot discovers scribbled writing in the drawer of the home’s old nightstand, reading “don’t say it, don’t think it” on crinkled old shelf paper. When he pushes the paper aside, he reads the name that propels the story forward – “the bye bye man. “ And guess what?!?! He thinks it and says it. (Screenwriter Johnathan Penner never mentions what Elliot’s major is, and we never actually see him go to class…I’m just saying.) He even types the cursed name into a search engine, and I personally think Penner should've changed the tagline to "don't say it, don't think it and definitely don't Google it."

Elliot and his three friends now know the name, which doesn’t immediately appear to be harmful – until it slowly takes over their consciousness, causing them to hallucinate and live in fear of the murderous man who is “coming for them.”

The group quickly realizes that they can’t share this information with anyone, because the simple act of knowing this name means a lifetime of hallucinations and being hunted. This leads to a messy, murderous web of lies they can’t explain their way out of, creating an interesting plot device that actually makes up for the so-so first hour. They can’t tell the police, they can’t tell their families – if they do, they put them in life-threatening danger. The more they try to keep it to themselves, the closer and more terrifying the Bye Bye Man and the paranoia he brings become. (If you think and say the very thing the cryptic old writing tells you not to think and say, you're also bound to follow the weird noises, go into the dark basement and open the ominous door. Elliot definitely missed the whole "follow directions" lesson in kindergarten.)

We eventually do meet the Bye Bye Man himself - a poor man’s Lord Voldemort (but at least Tom Riddle had some decent one-liners, am I right?). He’s scary enough, but the dialogue is what keeps this film from meeting its potential. (In one scene, Elliot hits his roommate with a baseball bat in a hallucinatory fog. He proceeds to say, “I almost killed you with a bat!” And I thought the name of the movie was redundant.)

The idea of a name causing so much terror and trauma is a pretty decent metaphor for human nature – the idea of having an important secret, but being unable to share it to spare others from harm. It’s a nightmare, actually – the thought of something ruining your life, but being unable to tell people about it. Another intrinsic theme is truth – once you say something, you can’t take it back. What you say changes things. It’s a good moral if you’re willing to look for it, and it actually makes The Bye Bye Man at least somewhat memorable.

The most important thing I learned from Title and Penner’s feature: if you have a baggy ominous black robe hanging from a hook on your wall that occasionally looks like a murderer lurking in the corner, maybe take down the robe. Come on, Elliot.

© Georgiana E. Presecky FF2 Media (1/15/17)

Top Photo: The name that catapults Elliot and co. into terrifying chaos.

Middle Photo: Elliot is "seeing things that aren't there and not seeing things that are."

Bottom Photo: Every teen horror film needs a first-act seance. Every one.

Photo credits: STX Entertainment

Q: Does The Bye Bye Man pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No, and even worse than that, it totally wastes Carrie-Ann Moss as the skeptical Detective Shaw.

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CLAIRE IN MOTION

Claire in Motion, directed and written by Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson, tells the story of a woman, “Claire” (Betsy Brandt), whose husband disappears on a survivalist hike. The film centers around her journey to find out what has become of him and whether he will ever return home.  (EBT: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Elyse B. Thaler

The film opens with “Paul” (Chris Beetem) kissing his wife “Claire” (Betsy Brandt) goodbye as he embarks on his second survivalist hike, a hike so extreme that his only food will be from what he finds in nature. Claire and Paul both give off an aura of self-assurance in the beginning. They are both professors at the same university, which brings an idyllic twist to their marriage.

However, when Paul fails to return home, his wife and son “Connor” (Zev Haworth), grow alarmed by his absence. Brandt spends the rest of the film trying to understand what has come of her husband. She even goes as far as confiding in a young art student, “Allison” (Anna Margaret Hollyman), whom she discovers had some sort of mysterious relationship with Paul.

Throughout the family’s search for the truth, Connor bonds with Allison in a way that is surprising and unsettling to his mother. When Claire looks at the young, hippy art student she does not see someone she would have thought her husband would be drawn to. But he was, making both Claire and the viewer question whether she ever really knew her husband at all.

As things start to slowly unravel, it feels as though more questions arise than answers. Paul’s relationship with Allison, whether it was romantic or simply a friendship, throws his relationship with his wife into question. Perhaps things were never as perfect as they once appeared?

The overall theme of the film is loneliness, and the filmmaking of Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson manages to encapsulate how that visually feels. The lack of musical score and shots of lived-in, yet lifeless parts of houses and offices remind the viewer of interrupted routines. This both creates a sense of eeriness and also becomes a visual form of hope: if his office is never cleaned out and reassigned, then maybe Paul will come home.

However, even in this story of extreme circumstance, it is hard, as a viewer, to care about the characters and their lives because there is so much left unsaid.  The filmmakers needed to give their audience another key into Claire or Paul’s psyche, in order to explain and give weight to their circumstances. Brandt gives a lovely performance, but because very little is revealed about her character it is difficult to empathize with her. Without more information, all that is left are empty stereotypes that lack the depth to make the film move along and engage its audience.

Clearly, the motive of Howell and Robinson was to keep the audience wondering and leave them disconcerted; but by keeping so many secrets it made Brandt's character ("Claire") feel two-dimensional and hollow. This is a film that needs the audience to root for their protagonist. However, Claire is not a character that is easy to root for, not because she is a bad person, but because she is not very relatable. In the end, the beautiful shots of landscapes and forestry are all that keep your eyes on the screen. As for the story and plot, there really was not anything thrilling about this "dramatic thriller".

©Elyse Bunt Thaler FF2 Media (01/25/17)

Top Photo: Claire calling for Paul in the woods.

Middle Photo: Claire and Connor looking for Paul.

Bottom Photo: Claire contemplates giving up her search.

Photo Credits: Andreas Burgess
Q: Does Claire In Motion pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Technically, the answer is yes.

There are some scenes where conversations between two women do not involve Paul. Yet I would argue that even when his name does not come up, his importance to what is happening is implied. After all, the entire plot of the film is for Claire to find out what happened to her husband.

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MA

Directed, written, and starring Celia Rowlson-Hall, MA is a surreal reimagining of the Virgin Mary’s spiritual journey. A modern Madonna is pregnant and looking for a place to give birth to the savior, but first she must find her way through the highways and motels of the American Southwest. (GPG: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

We open on the titular “Ma” (Celia Rowlson-Hall) distraught and wandering in the desert on her way to Las Vegas. She is found by a drifter named “Daniel” (Andrew Pastides) who becomes her companion and chaste lover. Together the two take out a room in a roadside motel and come to know one another through wordless, physically-driven scenes that flow in and out of dance sequences so smoothly that the viewer barely notices each transition. Really, most of the actions and interactions in MA feel like choreography, from something as simple as walking to a car to the crescendo towards the end as Ma goes into labor. As the film’s writer and director, Ms. Rowlson-Hall makes the film flow simply but powerfully through physicality alone.

The choreography, also done by Ms. Rowlson-Hall, is both idiosyncratic and flexible, using a pronounced style to capture the whole range of tone and emotion portrayed in the film. At times, it is as playful as children’s make-believe games, as when Ma and Daniel are getting to know each other in their room. Other times, like when Ma has an emotional breakdown, it resembles Maddie Ziegler’s work in Sia videos, performed underwater: frenetic and jerking, the dancer like one possessed by their inner demons. Always, though, it expresses the emotionality of the scene beautifully and poetically.

The only issue with the film’s feminism involves the promiscuous, hedonistic motel desk girl “Misti” (Amy Seimetz) depicted as a foil to Ma’s virgin, who ends up being treated by the narrative of the film approximately how you’d expect a “whore” figure would in a film about Christianity. While the rest of the film explores femininity and gender expression in a free and playful way, this (probably unintended) reproduction of the source material’s attitudes gives the viewer pause, but it’s a short and non-integral factor in an otherwise impressively woman-driven and woman-loving story.

As a character, Ma’s unworldliness puts her at odds with the often ugly world of the film, putting her in danger and causing her pain. Through spare, solemn camerawork and primally expressive dance, the Madonna’s struggle unfolds as a passion-play in its own right—the story of a woman trying to escape a harsh world to find a better one for her unborn child.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto FF2 Media (1/15/17)

Top Photo: Ma waits for a car to pick her up in the desert.

Middle Photo: Ma surveys the desert.

Bottom Photo: Ma physically reacts to overhearing other motel guests.

Photo Credits: Factory 25

Q: Does MA pass the Bechdel test?

 Yes!

This is a difficult question to answer since there’s hardly any speaking in MA at all. Much of the film is focused on Ma alone, and the majority of the rest of the story is centered on Ma and Daniel’s relationship. However, Ma has a moment with the motel girl, as well as interaction with a mysterious blonde girl who seems to be ruler of the palace in Las Vegas where Ma gives birth. In light of these moments, I give it a pass!

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SAVING BANKSY

Opens tomorrow (1/13/17) in NYC. Review coming soon!

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SLEEPLESS

Opens tomorrow (1/13/17) in NYC. Review coming soon!

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VINCE GIORDANO: THERE’S A FUTURE IN THE PAST

Written and directed by Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards, Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past brings us jazz musician Vince Giordano, the dedicated and eclectically gathered members of his band the Night Hawks, and the strange and magical corner of New York’s jazz world they influence. Giordano’s interest is in 1920s and 30s jazz, both preserving it and revitalizing it. Davidson and Edwards’ documentary celebrates not only the music and mood of the Night Hawks, but also their roles as historians and artists, bringing back the particular joys of the decades from which they derive their music. (AEL: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Amelie E. Lasker

To start, it’s important to note that Vince Giordano and the Night Hawks are not the kind of jazz band you’d imagine playing New York City clubs. There are no improvised solos, though Vince makes it clear that his musicians are talented enough to create beautiful ones. Instead, they play from arrangements of pieces from the 1920s and 30s, discovered and collected, usually by Vince himself, in families’ dusty collections or in the archives of old libraries. They study old records to get the pieces exactly right.

Onstage, they are not a small and cohesive group, but a mass of people and shining instruments. Vince requires his musicians to wear tuxedos when they perform, deliberately to create a sense of the now-antiquated, clean-cut musician. Their manner is grand and a little eclectic: sometimes during performances, Vince will pass out sheet music with a flourish, to make it clear that the whole group is sight reading, unrehearsed and still completely at ease.

Much of the nostalgic style stems from Vince’s own vision. As a young musician, he was not only a jazz enthusiast, but even something of a missionary, protecting the 1920s music he loved from oblivion. Vince tells stories of the music of Disney cartoons that made him love that era when other kids would dismiss it as “cartoon music.” He tells of the time he was sixteen and took lessons with arranger Bill Challis, who told him stories about working with Gershwin and Bing Crosby in the recording studio. Vince recorded soundtracks for Woody Allen movies, and a number of other films and TV shows with the Night Hawks.

Vince’s singular passion makes the massive band cohesive. The Night Hawks’ reed player Mark Lopeman explains that Vince isn’t just a front man, “he’s the whole show.” In many performances, Vince serenades the audience, singing the romantic and adorably lewd lyrics with his group supporting him.

Members of The Night Hawks are characters themselves. They approach the twice-a-week gig at their small jazz club with such dedication that they are clearly caught up in the same dream that has inspired Vince since his childhood. Many of them depend on other bands or musical work to make their living, but they talk about their work as projects rather than stresses. With the Night Hawks, they must be committed to a particular aesthetic and a particular style of music, with no room for improvisation. And yet each member keeps coming back.

Oftentimes, the musicians support their niche musical interest with such earnest conviction that it can seem pathetic, and neither the filmmakers nor Vince shy away from that impression. Often in performances, Vince remarks on how small the audience is, how modest their weekly venues, or how surprising it can be when anybody cares at all.

It becomes clear that the almost uncomfortable earnestness is an essential part of the transformation these musicians facilitate in the musical world. In a performance of Rhapsody in Blue in a grand music hall, they don’t look motley or ridiculous in their tuxedos, but grand and radiant. Vince asks, “Why was the Rhapsody so successful?” He explains, “Here’s this wonderful orchestra of superb musicians… and all of that material is suddenly swept together into a work of art by Gershwin.”

Dan Levinson, reed player for the Night Hawks, explains that they are entering a golden age for these kinds of musicians of the past, where it’s “not only popular, but fashionable to play this music.” Jon-Erik Kellso, Night Hawks cornetist, talks about all the young people who come to dance in the speakeasy atmosphere, the free warmth of the Prohibition era.

Vince Giordano and the Night Hawks have become historians and performance artists, as well as musicians. Vince talks about the decade-specific details he’ll bring to jazz clubs where they perform: candles, exhaust fans for bathrooms, and even toilet seats, and he sets them all up himself. Miz Elizabeth, lead singer of the jazz band the Hot Sardines, describes the experience of this music as cinematic. As she enthuses, I suddenly understand why Vince cares so much about preserving this kind of music as it was. As Miz Elizabeth puts it, if it’s just right, it’s complete “joy sauce.”

© Amelie E. Lasker FF2 Media (1/12/17)

Top Photo: Vince plays in concert.

Middle Photo: Vince at a recording session.

Bottom Photo: The Night Hawks.

Photo Credits: First Run Features

Q: Does Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No, mostly because almost all of the musicians featured are male.

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