Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest [Luftslottet som sprängdes] (2009)

Daniel Alfredson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final chapter of the first, native Swedish round of movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy. Like Alfredson's previous chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, it's very good. It's hard to choose one to prefer over the other. Yet they still both suffer slightly in comparison to Niels Arden Oplev's chilly and fascinating opening salvo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Still, there's little to complain about in this suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. David Fincher's whateverized version with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig is forthcoming.

The film opens just where the previous one left off, with no time lapse this time. If you've seen The Girl Who Played with Fire, you know that not just the girl played with fire and got burned, but quite a few people--and not just burned, but stabbed, tied up, axed, shot, kickboxed, buried alive & c.

So we're off to the hospital for major surgeries. And not only surgeries, but some sanctuary for our bruised heroine Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and a chance to tell her side of the story, Scheherezade-like, with the help of Mikael Nyqvist (Michael Blomqvist) and young Dr. Jonasson (Askel Morisse, very good). But hold up. We're going to spend a lot of time in this hospital.

The Swedish title of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is "Luftslottet som sprängdes," which I translate pretty literally as "The Castle in the Air That Exploded." The English "Hornet's Nest" version is okay and fits the story, too, and one can understand why they wanted to use "The Girl" construction in English to unify the three books in English-speaking readers' minds. But "The Castle in the Air That Exploded" is pretty darn evocative on its own. It could reference Thomas Love Peacock's "castles in the air," Thoreau's "in the sky," Magritte's "Castle in the Pyrenees," Kafka--The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest also has a trial--and William Burroughs's The Ticket That Exploded.

It's hard to discount any of these references. This series is contemporary, but haunted with ghosts of the past century. Lisbeth Salander is the ultimate system-created victim of the worst elements of the system. Her victimization becomes the top priority, and the last, attenuated gasp of the deadly political viruses of the twentieth century. But she fights back. The only way she can? That's more debatable, an open question.

"The Hornet's Nest" that gets kicked, or "The Castle in the Air" that explodes, is "The Section," a secretive cell born of the Cold War which has protected and harbored illegal activities including murder, human trafficking and more. Lisbeth Salander's whole life has been lived within that secretive pocket, until her own devices created a small opening which might be big enough to slip through before the walls come crashing down. But either way, they are going to crash down, and the bombs are all painted with Lisbeth's revolutionary slogan "Sadistic Pig."

But, as mentioned earlier, Lisbeth is not in the clear as this film opens. She's wanted for murder and attempted murder. Her story is unknown generally. She's a ward of the state. And the swarm of crazy old criminal farts she stirred up with her kicks is aimed straight at silencing her at whatever cost. We see Lisbeth's former guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) briefly, but he's been replaced as the evillest, slimiest person in the world by Anders Ahlbom as Lisbeth's childhood tormentor, and a keystone in the "Section" conspiracy, Dr. Peter Teleborian. Teleborian once had Lisbeth under his complete control, and he sees no reason why this should not resume and continue, handily protecting his co-conspirators and his own secrets at the same time.

Lisbeth's lack of legal standing and the charges against her make this a real possibility, unless there is a way to get her side of the story, with evidence, into the public eye. This is the job of Mikael Blomqvist and Millennium magazine, and not without risks and losses. Annika Hallin reappears as Nyqvist's sister, Annika Giannini, pregnant, radiant and tough here, appearing for the defense, in a larger and more effective role than before. She defends a defiant Lisbeth, mohawked and mostly silent through her last, or nearly last ordeal, evoking Joan of Arc, but with some last-minute blockbuster evidence up her sleeve. Lisbeth's plight even brings Plague (Tomas Köhler) out of the basement. At one point, a character voices what we've known all along, that Lisbeth's story "is like a Greek tragedy." It becomes a laugh line, the understatement of the bloody century, at least.

Like The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest does also have the disadvantage of following the very great first film, and also does suffer mildly by comparison. But distance helps, and the final film feels more of a piece than the second. Its images are striking and powerful, and its story has a rhythm and inevitability which ties it to both of the previous films persuasively. (You can tell it's set in Sweden because the furniture in Lisbeth's prison cell is stunning.) I still haven't read the books, but likely will. It's a gorgeous and iconic trilogy, it was great to see it all play out, and the big question now left in my mind is for which film Rapace will win her Best Actress Oscar. It could be any of them (but should probably be Dragon Tattoo). And Michael Nyqvist for Best Supporting Actor.

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Review: Hereafter (2010)

Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, like all his best movies, is very aware that it is a movie. Eastwood's directorial hand is never really invisible, though often quite gentle and modest. He's always telling us a cracker of a story, with unexpected, ironic developments. He can tease us, and tease us more for getting teased.

In Hereafter, Cécile de France plays journalist Marie LeLay, who hosts a national newscast in France and endorses products. She's on vacation with her producer (Thierry Neuvic, good), with whom she's romantically involved, as her new ad campaign blankets Paris with her beautiful mien. But circumstances intervene in her high-flying life to show her visions of an afterlife she comes to believe are not just hallucinations, but more evidence.

Matt Damon is one of two other major characters, George Lonegan, a former somewhat-famous psychic reader who retired from that game and found honest work in a factory. His brother (Jay Mohr, good) prevails upon him to do a reading for a potential client (Richard Kind) of the brother's business, which George does with great trepidation, but to the satisfaction of the client. George says he retired from active psychic reading because of its relationship to death. This makes enough sense on its face, however one settles the question of whether George's gift is truly supernatural or more about reading people, roping in predictions and pronouncements based upon visual, conversational and other feedback. Damon's performance here is quiet and considered, thoughtful and fine.

Meanwhile, we meet young twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), living in London with a mother (Lyndsey Marshal) who is an addict. Together they've devised schemes and gambits to protect the full knowlege of the extent of her deterioration from social service authorities and win her back from her darkness so she can be their mother again, sadly predictably a losing battle for a couple of kids, no matter how smart and dedicated.

Telling too much about how these three come to interact would be a disservice to viewers. But we can be sure that beautiful filmmaking, bravura storytelling and a certain degree of humanistic ambivalence and irony will be involved. I have to say that I found the film immediately and drivingly moving. There's no fooling around when it comes to starting up the action and making the audience identify with sympathetic characters quickly placed in large and affecting situations. If your heart doesn't go in your throat a few times during this one, you're stolider than me. I found it a rare and valuable experience to see characters treated with such respect, with such freedom in the plotting so that we can follow them to big emotional extremes, and so little hammering down of what to think about it.

But in addition to the surface plot in which the characters are involved, there's a larger story also told about fame, show business, showmanship and belief which also leaves many interesting questions open. Both Lonegan and LeLay have a degree of fame at one point which they willingly sacrifice for what they view as larger truths, more important priorities. Marcus ends up in difficult circumstances when his family unit is disrupted, but can still dial them both up on the Internet just because he's interested and attempt to make a connection. There's a meta-level of media commentary going on which is about as strong as the emotional story, engaging the audience with larger issues of trust, belief, influence, appearances, and what it is that makes a good story.

At one point, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) explains to George, her cooking class partner with whom she shares a mutual attraction, that she has left Pittsburgh for a better life in California, in an obvious but slightly indirect funny little good-natured dialogue shout-out to M. Night Shyamalan and Ms. Howard's unfortunate history in his worst films. Eastwood does try to out-Night Shyamalan a bit with Hereafter, and he definitely shows he can score on similar territory (though, personally, and a bit rarely among fellow critics, I see Shyamalan as having had a great year with The Last Airbender and Devil). In addition to that light punch on the arm, Eastwood plays with conventions associated with Shyamalan's films to good effect, and affectionately.

At the same time, Howard's self-contained subplot with Lonegan, how they meet, notice one another, and react to Lonegan's gift/curse as a psychic is essential, and reflects back on the rest of the story dazzlingly, like trying to look at all the individual refractions from a lit-up crystal chandelier. (It can't be done, but the attempt creates a visual and sensory image or experience.) Steven Schirripa ("The Sopranos") has a nice cameo here as a wise cooking teacher whose class I would join if you have the sign-up sheet.

Hereafter is beautiful, moving, smart, learned, gripping and worth seeing. It has great performances, images, storytelling touches and conflicts illuminating the questions of life, death, afterlife, belief, charlatanism and love. And we decide what it can mean. It's the best Eastwood I've seen since--what?--Changeling? (I haven't seen Invictus yet.)

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Review: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

For a quickie sequel to a surprise box office success, Paranormal Activity 2 is remarkably built around the first film like a custom-made holster. Staying true to the original characters, story and mood, despite a different director and writer, it's a really fun and suspenseful second helping of what made Paranormal Activity work uniquely well in a subgenre in which other similar films have tried and failed, many quite ignominiously.

The new film uses lots of techniques the first one used effectively, but still manages to find new little twists on how that works. It boils down to building suspense by showing us a frame of action and letting the audience fill in what might happen for a good little bit before showing us what actually does happen. While the effects here are mostly quite similar to the first film, they are sort of kicked up a notch.

Without spoiling the great contrivance which adds so much to this second film, I'm confident it's no spoiler to say that there is continuity between them, and that this second film centers around a similar haunting or possession, this time mostly affecting a blended family of a husband and his young daughter, new wife and baby boy, and their dog.

After what seems like a pretty poltergeist-y break-in, the husband installs security cameras at six locations in their house, to catch about any kind of activity which might occur from multiple angles.

Ditching Micah's camera obsession from the first film, however, in which he (and so the audience) would obsessively recheck the tape each night, in the new film the haunted folks are not believers right away, and try hard not to be most of the way through. So the camera footage is checked only in extremity.

Like the first film, this one is very smart about its characters and the supernatural forces they face, and that interaction. It's all motivated, interesting, creepy--i.e., more involving than a lot of horror movies tend to bother to offer.

It's a San Diego story, too, like the first film, and its suburban, upper middle class setting is almost like an extra character. As a San Diegan myself, I felt I knew everybody better, was brought in on the vibe with some immediacy and personal recognition. This family doesn't have my kitchen cabinets like Katie and Micah in the original, but the verisimilitude with a certain lifestyle and feeling lends the film a real local texture against which to cast its demonic shadow.

The cast are again excellent, and I think the surprises and connections to the first film pay off big, while most of the scares feel earned and not too musty. I really appreciated the way the two films sit together and make each other somewhat more.

Paranormal Activity 2 is quite a worthwhile, and rather ingeniously designed companion to the first film. I think I watched one or two Blair Witch sequels, but I can't remember anything about them, and they didn't make me want to go back and watch the first one again. Paranormal Activity 2 is good fun, and it does make you want to watch Paranormal Activity again. It's a very nice job of work.

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Review: Red (2010)

Red is a likable, action-violent romp with some good laughs and the amiable company of a game, smart cast who just barely, maybe, manage to rise above worn and reworn material to reward a casual viewing. Take it or leave it. If you're a big fan of Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss (as who isn't?) or New Zealander Karl Urban, I'm sure you're already there.

The film begins with a telephone romance between Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). They've never met, but a warm and witty chemistry built from repeated conversations seems to divert them both. Pretty quickly some fireworks start, and taking it on the lam, Moses becomes suspicious that whomever is hunting for him may involve Sarah as a pawn.

So to pick up Sarah so she can be personally protected, and then to keep on keeping on in the face of gunfire and official opposition to investigate and maneuver in the affair of Who Is Killing Ex-CIA Officers Like Moses and why, and whom to blow up to make it stop.

The chemistry here between Willis and Parker should in no way work. As in Knight and Day, it makes little sense. But some playfulness and good dialogue keep it light, bantery and yet consequential enough to get the job done. And why have we never seen them together before? More please.

That said, there is a major terrible shopworn plot occurence I won't reveal here, but which leaves a bit of a sour taste. There's no good reason for it. It's not commentary on the device. It's just a bad device, repeated completely without irony or humor, and it makes even the stuff that really works and holds together seem a little more lackluster. It has to do with Morgan Freeman's character.

Freeman plays, yes, another retired CIA tough on the current hit list, Joe Matheson. He has very little to do. At the same time it's disappointing that he doesn't join in much of the fun parts of the movie, and his part is so small, on the other hand, it's kind of cool that he's accorded that kind of respect. Why should he get all wrapped up in this silly movie? He's Morgan Freeman. I'd feel lucky if he'd deign to cash a paycheck for any kind of project I might be working on, and be honest, you probably would, too. Still, I kind of missed him.

The rest of the crew of "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" agents is made up of Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), fond of explosives and acid, Victoria (Helen Mirren) an elegant machine-gunner, and honorary (not CIA nor on the current hit list) member Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), the randy Marlon Brando of ex-KGB. Victoria and Simanov have a little history and some nice interaction.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Alexander Dunning, a shady quasi-intelligence figure with ties to the vice president, Robert Stanton, a character who uses Bill Clinton's '92 logo (and Primary Colors moniker), Cheney's m.o., Dan Quayle and George W. Bush's backstory, and Bobby Kennedy's face to achieve not much. At its best, the film recalls Get Shorty or North by Northwest. It has competent editing and forward motion, a bluesy rock score, some pretty good jokes and some (not vibrantly sustained) charm.

Red really does trip on some lameness. It's not as smart or fun as The Losers or The Expendables. But particularly Willis and Parker and their zany, dreamy relationship, Mirren's and Malkovich's best moments put it over the top for a recommendation from me. You don't have to pay much attention to it.

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Review: The Social Network (2010)

David Fincher's The Social Network, with screenplay by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires (which I have not read), is a winning and stunningly contemporary dramatization of the creepy genii behind Facebook.

It features career-making performances from Jesse Eisenberg as founder Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield (soon to play Spider-Man, and so excellent here and in Never Let Me Go), as co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Justin Timberlake as Napster founder, Svengali and provocateur Sean Parker and Armie Hammer as Olympic rowers Cameron and Tyler, the Winklevoss twins. Hammer's dual performance using two human bodies and only one face is effective, perhaps even retroactively justifying the existence of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But that might be going too far.

Also featuring complex dialogue every bit as cutting, rapid-fire and packed with subtle meaning as that in His Girl Friday or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Social Network is sort of a Chariots of Fire of coding and Internet entrepreneurship, the Harvard-to-Silicon Valley rags-to-riches story of America's youngest billionaire and how he got there.

At the same time we do learn about that, The Social Network tells us almost nothing about Mark Zuckerberg the person, wherever one may come down on the minor controversy surrounding how much of the film's basis is factual. That's part of the beauty of the film.

Zuckerberg, as played by Eisenberg, is an autistic hurricane eye around whom swirl talent, ambition, greed, lust...but this isn't a review of Se7en. The point is that though some things are inferred or made out of the interstices of what facts are presented, they hold Zuckerberg in no light except justifiable fascination.

The film is told through the eyes of characters involved in two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg and/or Facebook over its founding and ownership, by the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella, good), contending that Zuckerberg built Facebook while having agreed to work for their company with a similar idea crucial to it, and by Saverin, the first CFO of Facebook, contending that he was cheated out of his ownership share in the firm.

As such, the flashbacks we see as the film's standard narration are dependent, often relative as they are being related. It can be hard to keep track of whose version is being told, or if the details are being filled in and shared by more than one character's side as the story loops and doubles back. In fact, only scenes depicting and surrounding depositions are given any real credit as "reality" the way the stories are told, creating a tall tale about and starring Zuckerberg in which he as a person is curiously absent.

The film definitely fails the "Bechdel Test" for inclusion of women, but then again it's a very testosterone-fueled story however one might wish to portray that, so I can't find that a great criticism. Rooney Mara (most convincing in the new Nightmare on Elm Street and soon to play the heroine in Fincher's own Americanized The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) makes an impression as an old girlfriend of Zuckerberg's who can follow his mile-a-minute speeches and reply cogently. Brenda Song plays a jealous girlfriend memorably. And Rashida Jones plays a smart and competent attorney who also develops a rapport with the Zuck. I didn't find the film to be anti-woman at all. The characters are immature and at times sexist in their treatment of women. The film is not.

By any measure, The Social Network is an excellent and finely made film about technology, modern friendship and entrepreneurial gusto. It's a good time at the movies, bright commentary on our times and society, and a funny, moving story.

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Review: Case 39 (2009)

Christian Alvart's Case 39 is a pretty paint-by-numbers bad seed pic. There's this kid who seems really sympathetic at first, and then there's some effective suspense, and then we get to reevaluate our opinion of whether or not she's sympathetic.

Renée Zellweger (all right) plays Emily Jenkins, an overworked social worker with--you guessed it--38 cases in her current caseload. She's a whirlwind of do-gooding, making this appointment, chewing out this bad parent, when her boss (Adrian Lester) decides she's the one to get a 39th case. Let's call it "Case 39."

Still, something about the young girl's picture in the new file touches something in Emily, maybe she sees a bit of herself in the girl. At first it seems a relatively minor case. There's been nothing out of the ordinary about the life of Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland, very good) so far, but recently there's been a report that her grades are slipping badly, and she's falling asleep in class.

Off to the Sullivans', then, where we meet her strange, harried, monotone mother, Margaret (Kerry O'Malley, good), and her basement-spelunking father, Edward (Callum Keith Rennie, also good). It's pretty clear to Emily from their demeanors and Lilith's pleading eyes that something fairly odd could be going on in their household. Emily can't prove anything, but she manages to communicate with Lilith and have her parents called in to the social services office for a more in-depth interview.

Though their characters are pretty poorly used, Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane make some impact playing, respectively, Doug, a psychologist who helps evaluate children for social services, and Detective Barron, a hardbitten but trustworthy cop friend of Emily's who has "gone off the books" a few times to help her with various issues with the children she's monitoring.

A late-night phone call from Lilith puts Emily and Detective Barron into action, and soon Emily finds herself with a new foster child. There are too few scenes after this which really establish a rapport between foster mother and child; there should have been entirely more.

The middle of the movie is something of a muddle, with some effective suspense and revelations interweaving with not much to make any particular character identifiable and some special effects of varying specialty. A backstory for Emily could have added a lot, but instead it's kind of lamely inserted at the last minute so that it can't resonate with anything from any other part of the film.

A passable score by Michl Britsch helps keep the enterprise moving, but we see and feel the chug-chug of the plot like a long, tiring train ride to the middle of nowhere. Put this clue with that one! Here are three better bad seed movies off the top of my head! Here are three better Zellweger movies off the top of my head! Here are three better Bradley Cooper movies off the top of my head! And other thoughts for boring movies. Case 39 could have gotten up to much more, and more involving devilment, but it's satisfied just not to. I understand the movie's release was delayed a year or two, during which time I imagine the filmmakers got their shoes shined a lot, maybe had meetings.

Case 39 is not a good movie, but it's not the worst movie ever, or of its genre. Like in this year's The Last Exorcism, it's hard for the film to quit throwing off clues and decide on something. When it does, feh. Want a supernatural thriller, watch Devil, it's awesome, it has characters and keeps you guessing.

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Review: Let Me In (2010)

Matt Reeves's Let Me In, based on the Swedish book and movie Lât den rätte komma in ("Let the Right One In," also published as Let Me In in the U.S.)--which I have not read, though I have seen the film--is a competent, slightly stately remake of a sprightly classic original Swedish vampire tale, with solid performances, but not much to add or illuminate through adaptation.

I tried to pretend I hadn't seen the original when I first watched the new one. This wasn't very easy to do, though, since despite not having seen it since it was on the big screen in 2008, the new one is nearly a shot-by-shot remake of it, like Gus Van Sant's Psycho.

In addition, the original is a great film that sticks with you. Also, I happened to watch the new one for the first time on the exact same screen in the exact same theater where I had watched the first film two or three times. So I mixed it up and watched it one more time elsewhere before writing this.

It still suffers in comparison. Lât den rätte komma in is original, bright, highly stylized and symbolized, at times quite graphic, and at other times at home in suburbia with its young heroes, Oskar (Kâre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson). It's a period piece of the eighties as well as a bit of a mystery, and it deals with more subjects than even the most exhaustive analysis could hope to touch on.

You can't just put the genie back in the bottle. I suspect that many fans of the original may be like me and feel that this film does not quite work as perfectly, not just because we don't have the suspense of not knowing exactly what's going on or what's going to happen, but also because it's not told quite as well.

Though it is very faithful, Let Me In does leave scenes and subplots out and changes things up a bit visually, generally always to its detriment. And of course the story is now set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the heroes are renamed Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of John Hillcoat's The Road) and Abby (Chloe Moretz of (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass). The American actors are excellent, and they sell the basic story, along with what symbols and images are recreated for the new film.

But they are not quite the same characters, and that and some other changes throw off the balance of the original story some, without finding new resonances and symbolic pillars to hold things up. The result is not bad at all, it's just not great, and not just because it's not quite the same as what worked well in the original film.

Now, for those who haven't seen the original, do yourself the favor and do. If liking and being pretty familiar with the original got in the way of my enjoying this one, maybe the opposite would be true for you, so I strongly recommend seeing Lât den rätte komma in first. If you still want to watch this one without having seen the original, I won't try to stop you, in fact, I'm recommending this film on its own. Any way, I think you'll find it slower, with less effectively used special effects, less symbolic and dramatic unity, and less weirdness and danger than the original.

Let Me In just doesn't add enough to the mix to totally justify a remake, when it comes right down to it, though the film is all right, fine. But these days a couple of clicks and you can watch the original version of...almost anything. In this case, watch the original. There's not a lot to complain about with Let Me In, but it's competent and mostly just that.

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Quayle leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for September

Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN) led September voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

September 2010

#1 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 20.1%
#2 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 18.5%
#3 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 18%
#4 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 16.4%
#5 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 7.4%
#6 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 5.3%
#7 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 4.8%
#8 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 3.7%
#9 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 2.6%
#9 - Other ... 2.6%
#10 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... .5%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 0%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

189 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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