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DVD Review: Luce

October 29, 2019

By John Corrado

There has been a lot of talk about the racially charged drama Luce since it premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year, and it’s now available on DVD as of today. The film follows a high school student named Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an Eritrean immigrant who is the adoptive son of a white couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth).

Luce ends up locked in a game of cat and mouse with his teacher (Octavia Spencer) after writing an essay that leads her to believe he has extremist leanings. I personally found the film to feel a bit too heavy-handed and melodramatic, but it’s carried by strong performances, and does open up a lot of conversations, making it worth a look on DVD for curious viewers. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The DVD also includes an interview with actresses Spencer and Watts in which they talk about their characters and the film’s themes of power and privilege, as well as a commentary track featuring director Julius Onah. A digital copy is also included in the package.

Luce is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 109 and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 29th, 2019 

Review: Jojo Rabbit

October 26, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Satire is a tricky thing to properly pull off, but New Zealand actor and filmmaker Taika Waititi mostly succeeds in his latest film Jojo Rabbit, an original and daring World War II satire that is equal parts funny and moving.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month where it went on to win the coveted People’s Choice Award. That it won is not a shock to anyone who was in the room for its premiere, where the film got a rapturous response from the audience and received a standing ovation.

The film is set in Germany in the dying days of the Second World War, and the main character is Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young German nationalist and dedicated member of the Hitler Youth, whose imaginary friend is a cartoonish version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). But when Jojo discovers that his beloved mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic, his adherence to the poisonous, Jew-hating Nazi ideology starts to be challenged, as a heartwarming friendship forms between the two.

At first, Jojo Rabbit feels like it could go off the rails at any moment, but as the story starts to reveal itself and take some surprising dramatic turns, the film actually becomes quite emotionally involving in addition to being bitingly funny. The screenplay mercilessly mocks the stupidity of white supremacist thinking, while also delivering several moments that show the terrifying reality of the horrors being carried out by the Nazi regime. It should be offensive, and for some it might be, but Waititi’s irreverent approach is meant to take the piss out of Nazis, particularly Hitler himself, whom he often hilariously portrays as a buffonish, unhinged narcissist.

The film is carried by brilliant work from its young leads, with Davis deftly handling his portrayal of a difficult character in what is a true breakout role for the first time actor, and McKenzie complimenting him with a textured and moving performance that proves her remarkably understated work in last year’s Leave No Trace was no fluke. Johansson brings a great deal of heart to her role as Jojo’s mother, with an appealing earnestness and goofiness that we have never really seen from her before, and there are some lovely scenes between her and Davis.

They are backed up by an excellent supporting cast that also includes Sam Rockwell as an oddball Nazi, a role that has shades of his Oscar-winning turn as a racist cop finding redemption in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, even if his character here is written in broader strokes. Additionally, there are scene-stealing moments from Rebel Wilson as a dimwitted Nazi stalwart, and Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo officer who commands the film with a sequence that somehow manages to be both suspenseful and hilarious.

As I mentioned earlier, satire like this is a very tricky thing to pull off. Waititi is walking a very tricky tonal high-wire with Jojo Rabbit, and there are a few moments when the film doesn’t quite stick the landing. I enjoyed the film a lot, and reacted quite well to it in the moment during that sold-out TIFF screening where it was very easy to feed off the energy of the crowd. But after having some time away from it, I don’t know if the film necessarily always goes as deep as it seems to think it does, and there are a few moments where I actually wish it had gone even darker to really drive home its point. This might have helped the film leave even more of a lasting impact. The story is set in a horrifying period in human history, after all.

While amusing, Waititi’s jokey portrayal of Hitler also becomes a bit of a distraction at times, and can get in the way of the film’s emotional centre. There are a few moments where he shows up when I wish he had gotten out of the picture sooner, especially near the end, and with this imaginary version of Hitler remaining a goofy, comic figure throughout who never really progresses into being portrayed as truly evil, the depiction can end up feeling a bit too simplistic. But even if Waititi has made more of a one-off than an all time classic, Jojo Rabbit is still one of the more unique and enjoyable films to come along this year, playing like a cross between Life is Beautiful and Moonrise Kingdom.

The film serves as a sadly all too relevant exploration of how easy it is to get sucked into hate, especially for impressionable young people who feel like outcasts and are trying to find their place in the world. But it also shows that, in some cases, both change and forgiveness is possible. Waititi has crafted a film that is as subversive as it is sweet, and despite the subject matter, Jojo Rabbit is ultimately a feel good story that reaches a bittersweet conclusion.

Jojo Rabbit is now playing in select theatres in Toronto, and will be expanding in the coming weeks.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Pain and Glory

October 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory is a beautiful work filled with colour and emotion that is carried by a powerful, career-defining performance from Antonio Banderas, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his role.

The story centres around an aging filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (Banderas), who is plagued by chronic pain and a sense of creative stagnancy. When a revival screening is booked of Sabor, the last movie he made before his career started drying up, and he is invited to do a Q&A, Salvador reunites with the film’s star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), whom he hasn’t spoken to in years.

Alberto is a junkie and avid drug user, which causes Salvador to start doing heroin. This sends him down a path of remembering moments from his early life as a child (Asier Flores) in Spain, as memories of his mother (Penélope Cruz), and other figures from his past, start flooding back.

While it might not seem this way at first, Pain and Glory actually becomes a bit of a puzzle box, with our understanding of the story constantly evolving and turning in on itself as more elements of Salvador’s life are revealed through his memories. This leads to one of the best and most beautifully composed final images of any film this year. As figures and moments from Salvador’s past keep re-emerging within the narrative, Almodóvar’s film becomes a powerful exploration of repression, and how memories of sexual awakening and old relationships continue to linger and define our lives.

Themes of pleasure, desire and repressed sexuality have always been present in Almodóvar’s work, and in Pain and Glory the Spanish director plums them for maximum emotional depth. There are moments that recall the buoyancy and pleasurable qualities of his lighter works, including a wonderfully staged sequence involving a Q&A going horribly awry that walks a knife’s edge between funny and tragic, and shows that his gifts for screwball comedy are still just as sharp. But this is matched by a profound sense of tenderness and a deep, bittersweet well of feeling that makes this one of Almodóvar’s most perceptive and inward films, drawing upon moments from his own life to craft a story of longing and rebirth.

Banderas brings an introspective quality to his portrayal of Salvador, delivering a beautifully textured performance that reveals new layers of nuance as more of his character’s backstory is revealed. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is brilliant and vibrant, with symbolic splashes of the colour red appearing throughout. The result is a sumptuous, entertaining and very moving look at the intersections between movies and memories, that finds both Almodóvar and Banderas in top form, and provides a richly rewarding cinematic experience.

Pain and Glory is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Western Stars

October 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Western Stars, which was released earlier this year, is an introspective, often bittersweet concept album of sorts that tells the story of a fading Western movie star, and finds the iconic American rocker branching out to country music and performing with a thirty piece orchestra.

Not intending to go on tour with it, Springsteen only performed the album live once in front of a private audience, holding the invite-only concert in an old barn on his farm property in New Jersey, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who were lucky enough to attend.

This concert is beautifully captured by cinematographer Joe Desalvo in the film Western Stars, which is co-directed by Springsteen and filmmaker Thom Zimny, who is no stranger to music documentaries and previously directed the musician in the Netflix concert film Springsteen on Broadway. Together they have crafted an excellent concert film that heightens our appreciation of Springsteen’s latest album, and serves as a soaring companion piece to one of his most intimate works.

The album’s thirteen tracks are beautifully performed by Springsteen in the film, sometimes joined by his wife Patti Scialfa doing backup vocals, and the musical numbers are complimented by introspective interludes with the artist reflecting upon his life and how much of his work is infused with ideas about the American Dream. These moments find the musician looking back on a country that has changed a lot over the years, which compliments the nostalgic nature of the songs.

The film culminates with an excellent cover of the old Glen Campbell song “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which serves as not only a touching tribute to Campbell, but also another way that Springsteen is both looking to the past and reshaping it for the future. The Boss delivers a faithful cover of the song but also brings his own unique quality to it, making this a very fitting final note upon which to end this film. 

Watching Western Stars is a wonderful and at times moving experience, especially during an emotional performance of the song “Chasin’ Wild Horses” that will have many viewers holding back tears, and it’s a must see for Springsteen fans.

Western Stars is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Blu-ray Review: The Lion King (2019)

October 24, 2019

By John Corrado

It’s already made over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, and currently ranks as the second highest grossing movie of the year after Avengers: Endgame. Now Disney’s remake of The Lion King is available to own on Blu-ray as of this week.

While I did enjoy this updated retelling of The Lion King when I saw it in theatres, it also feels mostly like a direct copy of the original film. Yes, this remake features stunning, photorealistic visuals and an excellent, all-star voice cast, but it also doesn’t quite live up to its traditionally animated 1994 counterpart. For more on the film itself, you can read my full review right here.

The Blu-ray comes with a good selection of bonus features, starting with a commentary track featuring director Jon Favreau and a short introduction by him that you have the option of watching before the film, in which he talks about the one live action shot in the entire movie. This is followed by the three-part feature The Journey to The Lion King, which is close to an hour in total and offers an engaging and surprisingly in-depth look at various aspects of the film’s production.

The first segment, The Music, focuses on how original composer Hans Zimmer worked closely with executive music producer Pharrell Williams and the new cast, which includes established singers like Donald Glover and Beyoncé as well as non-singers like Seth Rogen, to update Elton John’s iconic songs from the original film. The second segment, The Magic, focuses on the actual making of the film itself, from filming the actors interacting with each other on sound stages while recording their lines, to the use of virtual reality headsets and physical camera rigs to set up the shots, allowing the framing and digital camerawork to appear more like that of a live action movie. And the third segment, The Timeless Tale, looks at how they updated the original film for this modern retelling.

Next up, under the tab labelled More To Be Scene, we get nicely edited progression reels of three key song sequences (“Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and “Hakuna Matata”), showing the various stages of evolution that each scene went through from storyboard to finished film. Last but not least, the disc includes music videos for Beyoncé’s “Spirit” and Elton John’s “Never Too Late,” the pair of new songs that were written for the film.

For those who are so inclined, there is also an option to watch the film in sing-along mode. While I don’t think this version of The Lion King will have the same replay value as its superior 1994 counterpart, the film is spectacular on a visual level, and the various behind the scenes footage included on this disc does an excellent job of showing the amount of work that went into it.

The Lion King is a Walt Disney Home Entertainment release. It’s 118 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: October 22nd, 2019

Review: Parasite

October 18, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Director Bong Joon-ho’s first film in Korean following his two English-language movies Snowpiercer and Okja, Parasite made history earlier this year when it took home the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, becoming the first film from South Korea to win the award. And now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that it deserved the award, and I’m in awe that the Palme even went to such a weird and wild film.

Without giving too much away, the film follows an impoverished Korean family – father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Change Hyae-jin), and their young adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) – who all live together in a cramped basement apartment, stealing wifi from nearby signals and doing whatever jobs they can to earn enough money for food.

Through a series of circumstances, their lives end up intertwined with the rich Park family – mother Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), their teenaged daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) and young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun) – who reside in a glorious mansion. I don’t want to say any more about the plot of Parasite, because that would ruin the entirely unique experience of seeing it for yourself.

Functioning as a fascinating study of how society’s underclass is held down by those at the top, either actively or passively, Bong Joon-ho has crafted a genre-bending film that keeps inverting and going in surprising new directions, as it oscillates seamlessly between dark comedy, drama, suspense thriller and horror. And in a career of great genre works, Parasite is maybe the director’s finest work yet, combining elements of both the action and thrills of Snowpiercer with the more introspective, character-focused tone of his 2009 crime drama Mother, which played with a series of complex moral dilemmas.

The film is grounded in the themes of class differences and social hierarchies that have underscored all of Bong Joon-ho’s work. Where as Snowpiercer used the metaphor of a train to symbolize separations in class, with each car holding a different level of society from the poor at the back to the rich at the front, Parasite brilliantly employs the over-under metaphor of a house to reveal the stark differences in living conditions between the rich and poor.

This is also one of the best looking movies of the year. The production design is exceptional, with the central family’s dark and dingy basement apartment standing in stark contrast to the Park family’s bright and airy modern house, which has a large glass window overlooking a backyard with perfectly trimmed grass. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, who also shot Snowpiercer for Bong Joon-ho as well as last year’s acclaimed South Korean film Burning, brings some captivating imagery to the screen, with his style and the film’s visual language changing to match the wild tonal shifts.

The film’s ensemble cast does uniformly excellent work, all perfectly tuned in to the unique tone of the piece. At the centre of the ensemble is Song Kang-ho, a frequent collaborator of Bong Joon-ho, who also worked with the filmmaker in Memories of a Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. The actor brings an emotional depth to his role here, especially in the moments when he realizes that, while he is being superficially accepted by this rich family, they still look down upon him and view him very much as being of a separate, dirtier class.

The film function as a brilliant social allegory that has more victims than villains, building towards one of the best endings of any film this year, closing on a note that is actually quite moving in its own way and lingers with you long afterwards. I could keep going on and on about what makes this film so great, but I’m going to stop there, because the most important takeaway from this review is that you should experience the film for yourself. Gripping to watch throughout every one of its surprising moments, Parasite is a wild ride. See it knowing as little about the plot as possible.

Parasite is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

October 18, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Arriving in theatres a full five years after Disney’s successful live action fantasy Maleficent, which provided a loose retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale from the perspective of the original story’s villain, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the epitome of a mildly enjoyable but also kind of needless sequel.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and her human goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) live peacefully on the moors surrounding the royal kingdom of Ulstead, watching over the fairies and other magical creatures that live there, whose environment is being threatened by human interference.

At the start of the film, Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) proposes to Aurora, and she agrees to marry him, despite the reservations of her godmother, viewing their union as a way to hopefully build a bridge between the magic and mortal worlds, who are locked in a sort of cold war.

Their engagement prompts Prince Phillip’s parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), to invite Aurora and her godmother Maleficent over to the castle for dinner, leading to perhaps the juiciest and one of the most fun sequences in the whole film. The meal quickly becomes a disaster, with Ingrith’s intolerance of and outright contempt for Maleficent growing ever more apparent as the two bicker over dinner, and the scene likewise gives Jolie and Pfeiffer the perfect chance to go toe-to-toe. When King John ends up in a coma, Maleficent is blamed for it, setting the stage for an all-out war with the magical world that tests Aurora’s allegiance.

There are some intriguing ideas here about the conflicts between these two worlds, but the characters aren’t as well fleshed out as they could be, and the central conflict between Maleficent and Ingrith is written in fairly broad terms. The film ultimately settles for delivering a massive, CGI battle that feels derivative of countless other blockbusters. Another one of the biggest things working against Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is that the film feels too long at nearly two hours, and doesn’t have quite enough plot to really justify this running time. It actually all becomes a little boring at times.

Director Joachim Rønning, delivering his second Disney franchise film after Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales in 2017, (another mildly enjoyable but largely needless and forgettable sequel), does do an adequate job of handling this film’s set-pieces. There are decent visual effects throughout, and the film boasts some appealing fantasy imagery, especially in its darker moments when Maleficent reconnects with more of her kind in a series of underground tunnels and caverns.

Jolie once again has fun in the title role, with her large black horns and pronounced cheekbones adding to her domineering onscreen presence, but she isn’t given nearly as much to chew on as she was in the first film, and indeed all of the characters here feel underdeveloped. At the end of the day, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is an okay sequel that has some decent moments, and fans of the first film are sure to find at least some stuff to enjoy here, but it also doesn’t really live up to its potential and ultimately feels somewhat needless.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in theatres across Canada.

DVD Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season

October 16, 2019

By John Corrado

The Nickelodeon animated series SpongeBob SquarePants has been on the air since 1999, and it’s still going strong after twenty years. While the show is currently in its twelfth season on TV, the complete tenth season of the series has just been released on DVD this week.

Spread over two discs, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season features eleven full-length episodes, (22 if you count the segments individually), all of which originally aired between 2016 and 2017.

The first disc has the seven episodes Whirly Brains/Mermaid Pants; Unreal Estate/Code Yellow; Mimic Madness/House Worming; Snooze You Lose/Krusty Katering; SpongeBob’s Place/Plankton Gets the Boot; Life Insurance/Burst Your Bubble; and Plankton Retires/Trident Trouble. On the second disc are the four episodes The Incredible Shrinking Sponge/Sportz?; The Getaway/Lost and Found; Patrick’s Coupon/Out of the Picture; and Feral Friends/Don’t Wake Patrick.

I grew up watching the first few seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants on TV, so it’s fun to catch up with these characters again now. While you can’t beat those vintage episodes, there are still a lot of wacky and amusing moments in the show’s tenth season, including brief guest appearances from Ed Asner (Whirly Brains) and J.K. Simmons (Snooze You Lose), and it’s easy to binge-watch your way through these discs if you are so inclined.

It’s also somewhat bittersweet now to see creator Stephen Hillenburg’s name in the credits, who is listed as executive producer on all of the episodes, as he sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with ALS. But I’m happy to say that his legacy still lives on, and this is a solid set for fans of the show, offering a selection of entertaining and easily digestible episodes for both old and new SpongeBob fanatics.

The DVD set includes no additional bonus features.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Tenth Season is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 250 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

DVD Review: Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

October 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen died within three months of each other in 2016. The two never got married or had children together, but they shared a deep bond, with her directly inspiring at least two of Cohen’s classic songs (“So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire”).

Ihlen, a young mother from Norway, became the Montreal singer-songwriter’s muse when the two first met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, where there was a thriving community of writers and other artists. Cohen was a poet, struggling novelist and avid drug user at the time, having yet to start his celebrated musical career, and Ihlen was raising the son she shared with Norwegian author Axel Jensen, when they started their love affair.

As Cohen rose to prominence as a performer, and had many other affairs, he would spend less and less time in Hydra. At first he would split his time evenly between there and Montreal, living six months out of a year in each place, before spending almost no time on the island. Ihlen would also go on to have another, more stable relationship, beginning to view Cohen as a figure from her past who remained just out of reach, but the two kept connecting over the years until their deaths a few months apart.

The over fifty year friendship and romantic entanglement between Ihlen and Cohen is documented in director Nick Broomfield’s often lovely documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. Broomfield was a contemporary of theirs who also met Marianne in Hydra in the 1960s, becoming a longtime friend to her, and his personal connection to the story is felt throughout the film. Through an abundance of archival footage, and new interviews with others who were in their circles, what emerges is a bittersweet portrait of both the free-loving 1960s and the meteoric rise of an artist as one of the figures who inspired him faded into the background of his life but continued to influence his work.

As others have pointed out, Leonard Cohen is more the focus here than Marianne Ihlen, which perhaps could be seen as a statement on how an artist’s “muse,” despite being an integral part of their mythos as Ihlen was to Cohen’s, is often seen through the lens of the work they inspired rather than on their own terms. In its last act, the film provides an overview of Cohen’s late career financial troubles following the several years that he spent at a monastery in the 1990s, leading to him going back on tour for a series of triumphant concerts in the last few years of his life. He gave Ihlen a front row seat at one of his shows, and the footage of her singing along is one of the most touching moments in the film.

Is this a love story? I’m not so sure, as the relationship at the centre of Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is much more complex than that, with one figure often overshadowing the other, both in this film and in real life. What the film ultimately becomes is a moving look at how artists remain elusive figures in relationships, present but often just out of reach in terms of truly giving themselves over to another person. It’s ultimately a story that is as poignant and twinged with sadness as one of Cohen’s songs.

The DVD includes no bonus features, but the package does come with a digital copy of the film.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 102 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

Blu-ray Review: Crawl

October 15, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

When a massive, Category 5 hurricane hits off the coast of Florida, Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check in on her father (Barry Pepper), and ends up trapped in the crawl space under his house with a massive alligator that has made its way down through a drainage pipe.

With the storm raging outside, and floodwaters rapidly rising, Hayley and her injured father do everything they can to survive and avoid being ripped apart by gators. This is the basic premise of Crawl, a simple but fairly well executed survival thriller directed by Alexandre Aja and produced by Sam Raimi that delivers exactly what you expect from this setup, nothing more and nothing less.

The plot itself is simplistic, and the character development that we do get feels pretty basic, never really going beyond rudimentary elements in terms of sketching out its main players. Haley is a professional swimmer, and the film opens with a brief introduction to her at a swim meet, intercut with flashbacks to her as a kid (Tina Pribicevic), when her father used to coach her and was her biggest champion. The two have now grown somewhat estranged, and are forced to reconnect over the course of the film due to the extreme circumstances that they find themselves in.

The entire point of Crawl is to put these characters in impossible situations so we can watch as they try to escape, and on these modest terms, the film’s stripped down approach largely works. As a series of suspenseful and well staged set-pieces, Crawl provides decent entertainment, offering plenty of moments of both tension and gore. It won’t exactly stick with you afterwards, but it works in the moment as a lean, mean creature feature that wastes no time and offers a taut thrill ride.

The Blu-ray also includes an alternate opening that is presented in the form of an animated motion comic, which is preceded by a short intro from the director. This is followed by a trio of deleted and extended scenes (I Guess I’m Off the Team, You Were Never Going to Evacuate, and Don’t Quit on Me), a nearly half-hour “behind the scenes” featurette entitled Beneath Crawl, an in-depth look at the visual effects in the featurette Category 5 Gators: The VFX of Crawl, and a piece called Alligator Attacks which offers a highlight reel of the film’s carnage.

Crawl is a Paramount Home Media Distribution release. It’s 87 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: October 15th, 2019

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