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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


Back before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson unleashed Scream on an unsuspecting genre public, no one would have fathomed linking fear and funny business together. Certainly there were specific spoofs of the fright film, and some directors believed instinctually that small amounts of comedy actually aided the dread. But to essentially make the humor as important as the horror seems a filmmaking feat of impossible parameters. Too much wit, and the suspense dries up. Too much fright and the jokes appear intrusive. Heralded by ‘Net head as the second coming of satiric scary splatter, Hatcher has lots of good things going for it. Unfortunately, they do tend to serve the same old slice and dice that hasn’t been relevant since a certain Mr. Reagan left the White House.


We are greeted by your standard spookshow premise – a pair of college friends visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras decide to go on a haunted swamp boat trip. It’s not a mutual decision – Ben is trying to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, while Marcus just wants to look at as many bead-less boobs as possible. Eventually, they make it to the launch, and there, among the various archetypal tourists and mysterious passengers, they learn of Victor Crowley. A legend among the bayou people, the story goes something like this – born with a horribly disfigured face, young Victor was kept sheltered from the world by his dad. When a Halloween prank by some local kids caused their shack to catch fire, the sad child’s father tried to save him. Unfortunately, the title implement he used ended up in Victor’s skull, leaving a massive scar. Now, decades later, an undead Victor supposedly stalks the bogs, looking for victims to satisfy his sense of justice.


Now, if this all sounds very Jason Voorhees and/or Freddy Krueger to you, that’s because Hatchet is cut from the same threadbare 1980s creepshow cloth. It is clear that writer/director Adam Green is a big time hack and slash fan, a fervent believer in the cinematic staying power of blood and buffoonery. While a tad too reliant on the post-modern notion of inherently ironic quips (the characters here don’t joke as much as provide a Mystery Science like nod and wink to everything that’s going on), Green does give us some mighty fine gore. In fact, it’s safe to say that Hatchet has some of the most satisfying anarchic arterial spray this side of a Romero zombie flick. This is the kind of film where heads are pulled apart, arms are severed from torsos, and – yes – axes cleave people in two - literally. While there is an over the top nature to the nastiness, it will provide lovers of repugnant liquidity more than enough sluice.


In fact, excessive claret may be Hatchet’s sole strong point. Green’s direction is good, if a tad generic, and he stages everything like one of those Disney Channel Halloweentown titles. There is very little invention, and his stock shocks are obvious and sort of embarrassing. Similarly, his cast offers nothing but stereotyped stops. They’re decent, but stuck essaying standard fright night fools. There’s a chubby Midwestern couple that stumbles around like mashed potatoes looking for the gravy boat, while a pair of pathetic bimbos and their pseudo softcore porn producer provider resemble outcasts from a Girls Gone Mild shoot. Even our evasive chick with a vendetta and a weapon turns into a whiny tart by the time Crowley starts wielding his sharpened stick.


Granted, our Goonies gone gonzo icon is a semi-impressive heavy, the kind of killer that immediately gets us thinking back to a dozen trips to the bottom shelf of a local Mom and Pop video store. But Green doesn’t give him a lot to do. All the set-up, with its sympathetic tone and temperament, never results in this maniac being anything other than murderous. And since a great deal of the action occurs at night and in shadowy locals, we never really get a good look at his fearsome fright mask. In some ways, Green goes to such lengths to keep Crowley in darkness that we never get the eerie epiphany his appearance mandates.


Still, it has to be said that Hatchet’s homage to the goofy, gloppy vivisection-fests of two decades before has a strange way of satisfying. The self-conscious wit actually works most of the time, and the inevitability of the deaths makes the character’s personal standoff seem that much sillier. Also, the bayou backdrop provides a nice amount of local color. Even the opening trips through the side streets of NOLA – and a few funny voodoo shops – puts us in the proper, pro-pus mood. Indeed, Hatchet has to screw up big time in order to have us hating it. When you toss in the production history (it was one of the last movies made in Louisiana before Katrina devastated the area) and the good nature attempt at recreating the genre, this film fairs very well.


Still, one has to wonder if the modern horror fan is ready to return to the days of creaky cat and mouse games followed by mindless mayhem without style or finesse. Over the 30 years since the slasher discovered its sage (either Bob Clark or John Carpenter – you decide), theatrical evil has strived to remove itself from the format’s rote realities. It’s wanted to avoid the carbon copy crappiness of the endless stream of splatter to reintroduce mood, narrative, characterization, and overall creativity back to the macabre medium. Still, when you can’t offer anything cogent, you go for what’s available. Scream substituted satire. Hatchet is hoping that humor pulls it through. The grand gore quotient does elevate an evaluation, but some will see it as noxiousness for novelty’s sake. In fact, that’s a perfect way to sum up this horror hilarity – outrageousness substituting for originality. 



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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


Sometimes, as a critic, you’re stuck for a motive. You work your brain around the history of cinema, and while potential reasons seem to reverberate, you still can’t comprehend what inspired a specific motion picture decision. In this case, we are dealing with the confounding decision by Broadway director Julie Taymor to tackle the Beatles masterful catalog as part of some post-modern musical experiment. Certainly, one senses an aesthetic in the right place – the Fab Four remain pop benchmarks and cultural earthquakes, individuals who redefined the very life and times they lived in. In addition, the ‘60s still reverberate with messages of peace, love, and equality - ideals that have just as much import today as they did forty years ago. Yet how all this ended up in the wildly uneven and creatively confused Across the Universe will remain a mystery to even the most insightful movie mind.


Telling the barest of stories and sprinkling an odd amalgamation of Northern Songs throughout, Taymor tries to achieve the same level of visual insanity and emotional power as Ken Russell managed in his adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, and Milos Forman found in his reinterpretation of the rock opera Hair. In fact, you’d be better served seeking out a rental copy of each of these gems and watching them side by side. Unfortunately, such a celluloid clash would only minimally mimic the mess Taymor achieves. This is either the most brilliant disaster ever helmed, or the most abysmal masterpiece ever crafted, a blunted gem that can’t make up its mind if it wants to shine, stumble or just plain stink. For every element of originality and invention, there’s a stereotypical take that destroys the atmosphere. Further more, the minute the music stops and the actors attempt to deliver their dialogue, all the energy dies. We soon find ourselves awash in clichés and cryptograms.


Our journey begins with Jude (and yes, there will also be a Lucy, a Sadie, a Prudence, a Max, and a JoJo, just to keep the Lennon/McCartney obviousness intact), a Liverpool shipyard worker who wants to find his American dad. Jumping ship in New Jersey, he locates his father working as a janitor at Princeton. After befriending fun boy Max, Jude winds up having Thanksgiving with the Ivy Leaguer’s definition of WASP-ish Americana. There he meets and falls for Lucy. Soon, everyone has relocated to the Big Apple, where Jude gets a job as an artist, Lucy becomes an activist, and Max is drafted.


They rent their communal pad from the Janis Joplin-esque Sadie, who has a Jimi Hendrix-ish guitarist boyfriend named JoJo. Along the way, we see the birth of campus revolution, the death of a black child during the Detroit Riots, and the introduction of acid by a LSD Guru named – wait for it – Dr. Robert. Eventually, Jude is deported, Lucy is feared dead, and Max comes back from his tour of duty in a less than sane state. Of course, all they need is love and everything is tangerine trees and strawberry fields…forever.


From a casting standpoint alone, Across the Universe suffers from that supposedly sincerest form of flattery – imitation. Sultry singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is the spitting image of Joan Osborne, while JoJo (Martin Luther) is Ritchie Havens in a purple haze. It’s not the actual actor’s fault – they’ve been cast and presented this way. Less obvious are the three main leads. Both Joe Anderson as Max and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy are supposed to be carved out of suburban symbolism, but both have the generic appeal or your typical Tinsel Town target audience. They aren’t individuals, they’re icons to wholesome hollowness, ex-Mickey Mouse Club members not invited to the reunion. In fact, the only performer who seems specifically selected for his combination of aura and singing chops is UK thesp Jim Sturgess. When he interacts with his fellow failures, he brings an inherent depth the others don’t possess. Even better, when he sings, he adds nuance and feeling to what is, for the most part, bland bombastic vocalizing.


Which brings us, naturally, to the music. Taymor wants to be innovative and unconventional in the way she interprets the Beatles songs, and with rare exception, her muse misses the mark by a long and winding country mile. The opening parallels between the US and the UK, set to the groove of “It Won’t Be Long” indicates where this project could have gone, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is given a mournful ballad feel (and a sly subtext) that’s truly moving. But then there are outrageously awful misfires like Eddie Izzard’s atrocious reading of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or Bono’s bloated take on “I Am the Walrus”. Both numbers immediately bring to mind the cameo-packed claptrap from 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently, no one on this production learned a single lesson from that fiasco. Otherwise, they’d never consider putting a non-singing comic (Steve Martin) in a role where he’s required to belt out an incongruous joke tune (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).


But it’s Tommy that keeps reverberating in your head, the wild eyed weirdness of Ken Russell’s slightly controlled chaos reminding one of how good this kind of material can be. Naturally, said rock show was specifically created as a character study, not cobbled together out of a classic band’s hit tracks. But Taymor is still trying to fill in the narrative and contextual gaps by the application of imagery, and it’s here where her status as a rogue surrealist wannabe finally fizzles and fades. During “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, refugee Marvs from Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City do a dopey ballet with army recruits in their underpants. A CGI montage of pre-induction tests battles against the same semi-clothed dudes carrying the Statue of Liberty like coffin bearers. Near the end, when Max is mental, multiple Salma Hayeks show up to administer pain killers as “Happiness is a Warm Gun” plays. Before long the entire hospital room is spinning like a carnival ride while a priest has a conniption fit. Groovy. 


Even the more normal takes on the material let the director down. JoJo arrives in New York to the strains of “Come Together” (featuring the brilliant move of having Joe Cocker play the ersatz narrator), but the obvious discomfort onscreen continues, mostly because of the incongruous nature of the images with the lyrics. In addition, a poignant moment set to “Let It Be” equally looses all its steam. The singing is miraculous – the metaphors are mixed. While there’s no denying that Taymor hits on more than one sequence of solid inspiration, it all becomes a question if it’s the material (it’s pretty near impossible to screw up an “All You Need is Love” singalong) or the mannered approach (overripe fruit as a symbol of destruction linked with “Strawberry Fields Forever”) that finally does her in.


The truth is, it’s neither. Had this filmmaker fumbled through the last four decades of rock and roll, picking out the purposefully obtuse and long since forgotten, found a non-derivative tale about growing up in turbulent times, and tried to meld her story with her symbols, we’d have a much better effort than anything Across the Universe attempts. The problem is an iconic cloud cast by The Beatles themselves. This was a group that literally shifted the cultural dynamic, leaving behind a lasting impression as both brilliant songwriters and social barometers. Like trying to import Picasso into your production designs, or using a shot for shot Hitchcock as your frame of reference, the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had too much baggage to stand on its own. While Taymor may admit she took that into consideration when making this movie, given the deconstructionist nature of some of her choices, it’s a patina she can never fully overcome.


That’s why Across the Universe is so uneven. You have to work so hard at forgetting everything you know about the boys from Liverpool, even as the movie constantly throws their monumental achievements directly at you, that it’s frequently not worth the effort. In addition, the lack of insight and artistic shortcutting produces an overlong, laborious crusade. In many ways, this remains one of the worst ideas in the entire pop culture lexicon. Yet somehow, the individuals in charge of Cirque De Soleil managed to find a happy medium between creative and crass when they turned the Beatles Love into a Las Vegas strip hit. Of course, the free form acrobatic show doesn’t have a lax narrative, cardboard characters, uninspired imagination, or a rose colored glasses view of the ‘60s to hamper it. It simply treats the Fab Four as they deserve to be. This movie avoids such direct respect - and pays the price.


 


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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.


There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.


With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 


In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.


The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.


None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.


Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.



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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007

America has a reputation for being fairly anti-intellectual, which is an impression created mostly by how the reactionary religious aspects of American culture have influenced politics and by extension culture—politicians cater to small but noisy constituencies who are invested in repression, straitened gender roles, self-righteous moralism, and censorship, and then suddenly Janet Jackson’s tit exposure becomes big news, a societal touchstone. But put aside that element, and America is a pretty good place to be an intellectual, for the reasons Scott McLemee touches on in this review of Russell Jacoby’s somewhat notorious book, The Last Intellectuals. In America there are lots of ideologically derived jobs that call for public intellectualizing, only in America we shy away from calling those who perform them intellectuals. (Thanks to that aforementioned corps of reactionaries, intellectual, like feminist or liberal, have become pejorative appellations in America.) Often these people are functionaries in the media feeding the voracious maw of the new outlets online, or they are adjuncts at state-supported universities. They are writing proposals or grants for a wide variety of philanthropies or NGOs; they are producing research or policy papers for one of any number of lobbies or think tanks. They are part of the army of commentators, professional or semiprofessional, supporting the edifice of mediated public life, convincing us that celebrities are important, or that the new books and TV shows and films and songs coming out are critically important and crucially significant. Perhaps America seems anti-intellectual because so many people have reasonable cause to fancy themselves as intellectuals, and the word has lost all relative meaning. What were once rootless intellectuals have become today’s “creatives,” who are repopulating cities to lead their boundlessly creative lifestyles, absolutely sure of their own centrality to the zeitgeist, their own fecundity.


McLemee cites this observation of Irving Howe’s:


The kind of society that has been emerging in the West, a society in which bureaucratic controls are imposed upon (but not fundamentally against) an interplay of private interests, has need for intellectuals in a way that earlier, “traditional” capitalism never did. It is a society in which ideology plays an unprecedented part: as social relations become more abstract and elusive, the human object is bound to the state with ideological slogans and abstractions—and for this chore intellectuals are indispensable; no one else can do the job as well. Because industrialism grants large quantities of leisure time without any creative sense of how to employ it, there springs up a vast new industry that must be staffed by intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals: the industry of mass culture. And because the state subsidizes mass education and our uneasy prosperity allows additional millions to gain a “higher” education, many new jobs suddenly become available in the academy: some fall to intellectuals.


Bohemia as a site of struggle and intellectual foment disappeared, to be replaced with a consumerist phantasmagoria. Intellectuals were drafted into the business of marketing, sometimes in positions were it was easy to disguise one’s own promotional function from oneself, particularly when what was being marketed was “cool”, and the intellectual labor to market hipness could be fobbed off as some sort of process of self-discovery.


Jacoby’s book is often cited as one of many works pointing out the irrelevance of academics as opposed to the intellectuals who truly did affect culture and steer the avant-garde from their rootless place at society’s margin and is thus seen as a lament for some lost golden age. But McLemee aptly points out that there was probably nothing particularly glorious in that life of insecurity, even if it did generate truly penetrating critiques of society from an “unattached” outsider’s perspective. But their critical apparatus didn’t prevent them from selling out at the earliest opportunity. Consumer capitalism was able to thrive so vigorously in post-war America in part because it found a place for these erstwhile rootless intellectuals, who primarily became apologists and heralds for the new order. Those who didn’t work to commercialize the public sphere and make it safe for “cool” retreated into obscurantism and hyperspecialism, content to rehearse overly subtle arguments for no one’s behalf. McLemee traces this point to Marcuse:


Marcuse admitted that his analysis yielded “two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.” But the recuperative capacities of a prosperous, bureaucratically administered consumer society were formidable, tipping the balance. Such a condition, as Marcuse wrote, “shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture,” and generates “an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.”


So the position of unaffiliated intellectual has been swallowed up by history. Where does critique emanate from now? From blogs and other unpaid, unrequested forms of mental labor being performed at the far reaches of the long tail? Or are these too just niches being filled to smooth over and firm up the impenetrable facade the consumer culture and the cult of narcissistic self-fashioning now present us with?


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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007

While business analysts view search as a Goliath (Google) versus David (every other company) battle for wrapping advertising around people’s need to find information, the local news portal, Outside.in, has quietly changed the nature of the game, and made local information matter. Outside.in may be the future of search.

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir


It may seem like nothing at all that Outside.in —an aggregator of local information from blogs and news organisations—has added the ability to make a general “search within the site”, but in its own quiet way Outside.in may be altering what it means to search for information on the internet in a way that will eventually have everyone else scrambling to catch up with them.


Conventional wisdom has it that in “web years” we’re in the second, adolescent, phase. The first was the invention of the internet, the second was the ability to connect, the third—web 3.0 as it’s sometimes known—is referred to, by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners Lee , as the ‘semantic’ web. With web 3.0 we’ll move from the phenomenal amount of connections (a Google search for Tim Berners Lee turns up 1,840,000 entries) to results that are dense, specific and meaningful, the adult’s lifetime of knowledge and experience distilled into wisdom. But while companies define meaning as an index, and see it as revenue enhancing, Outside.in has defined meaning as value. Information means something because it has a context, it’s not just a series of answers pruned by a human (as you’ll find on Mahalo) it’s locally tested information from neighbours.


We are pleased to announce that the exciting technology known as “search” has come to outside.in. That’s right - as of today you can actually enter a word or phrase into a search box on the home page, and see the results immediately. Amazing, huh? We know that this might not strike some of you as groundbreaking, but what makes search at outside.in so useful is what you’re searching: we have over 500,000 pages of web content, all organized by city, neighborhood and topic. We have over 30,000 pages relating to the places in your cities and towns. We have maps for local blogs in your area, and stories and comments submitted by your neighbors. We have topic pages for every neighborhood and city that show you all the recent discussion of “music” or “politics” (and many other topics) in that area. And we get bigger every day. Almost all of that information is news and commentary coming from the people who actually live in these communities: local bloggers and outside.in neighbors and local media. So if you’re looking for information about that new real estate development that’s being built down the street, or gossip about the new principal at the local public school, or the latest update about a crime that happened in the neighborhood—you should think of outside.in as the first place to look.
From an e-mail to Outside.in “neighbours” from co-founder John Geraci


The conceptual leap that Outside.in has made is that “local” is a frame-of-mind. Joseph Campbell, just before he died in 1987, said that he believed the mythology for this new century would be something that encompassed everywhere in the world, at once. The photograph of the earth from the moon’s orbit, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, showed us a view outside of ourselves that went deeply inside as well, showing us that we are all connected, on one earth, bound together. The computer tools and commercial tracking and mapping devices that came to market spun off from the space research and missions made possible Google earth, whose maps are Outside.in’s “glue” holding all of the information together, geotagged and pinned to a map.


 


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