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THE LETTER (1940) (***1/2)

The film is a bit racist, but in a weird way it actually helps the film. Set in Malaya, the film begins with Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis, NOW VOYAGER) emptying a pistol into Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH). She tells her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall, THE FLY) and lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX) that Hammond tried to rape her so she shot him in self-defense. Everything seems cut-and-dry until Joyce’s assistant Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung, CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU) reveals that a friend of Hammond’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard, THE BLACK CAT) has an incriminating letter that Leslie wrote to Hammond the day he was killed.

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THE JERK (1979) (**1/2)

Moments of this film are hilarious, but as a whole it doesn’t work. Much like many of the Marx Bros. films, this film is just a showcase for Steve Martin’s talents. In his first film performance, Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, an idiot who would make the DUMB AND DUMBER guys look like Stephen Hawking.

Navin has been raised in a poor black family, but doesn’t notice that he’s white until his 18th birthday when his mother (Mabel King, TV’s WHAT’S HAPPENING!!) tells him that he was left on their doorstep. After hearing some ballroom dance music for the first time, Navin is inspired to go out in the world and make something of himself. But because of an initial scene where Navin is a bum, we know the story will be a rags to riches to rags tale. Navin meanders through life like Forrest Gump, moving from gas station attendant to a weight guesser at the carnival to a millionaire inventor.

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WIMBLEDON (2004) (***)

Sports and romance have been put together many times before. Something for the guys and something for the girls. So how do you make the formula seem fresh? Add witty writing and great actors and you have a hit on your hands.

Peter Colt (Paul Bettany, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD) is an aging tennis pro, whose greatest accomplishment was being ranked 11th in the world at one point in his career. This Wimbledon will be his last tournament as a pro. Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst, SPIDER-MAN) is the hot new, young American phenom, who is kind of like a female John McEnroe. Peter and Lizzie meet cute and strike up an affair. They quickly bond and Paul begins to play the best tennis he’s played in years. All of a sudden he’s a star again. His agent Ron Roth (Jon Favreau, SWINGERS) even comes back into the picture. However, Lizzie’s father/manager Dennis (Sam Neill, JURASSIC PARK) isn’t too keen with Paul possibly throwing off Lizzie’s game.

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THE VILLAGE (2004) (***1/2)

Director M. Night Shyamalan has now created a portfolio of films that can be his own worst nightmare. Critics were very polarized about this film. Really a love-it-or-hate-it venture. I think many people brought expectations into the film and were left unsatisfied by the twists. However, I disagree. Like Shymalan’s previous films, the twists are all based on character and theme. This time the twists aren’t as surprising, but they’re still very thought-provoking.

Set in a Puritanical community in a valley in the woods, the town elders led by Edward Walker (William Hurt, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST) have struck a deal with the creatures living in the woods. The villagers will not venture out as long as the creatures do not venture in. Quiet-spoken and brave Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix, SIGNS) wants to travel into the towns to get medicine for the village, but the elders won't let him go, especially his mother Alice (Sigourney Weaver, ALIEN). Lucius is also secretly in love with a smart, tomboyish blind girl named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, BOOK OF LOVE), who has a playful relationship with a slow young man named Noah Percy (Adrien Brody, THE PIANIST). That is about as much of the plot as I will reveal.

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HEAVY METAL (1981) (**1/2)

I kept asking myself throughout this film if I would like it if it weren’t animated and the answer is no. The animation adds novelty that’s intriguing, but the various stories are only teenage male fantasies of sex and violence that kind of repeat themselves.

The six segments are strung together by the presence of an evil green orb. The first is a futuristic noir tale where a gruff cabbie picks up a lot of trouble when he saves a female scientist’s life. The second finds a teenage boy transformed into a he-man then transported to a primitive world where he must save a beautiful woman from being sacrificed. In the third, a cocky space pirate gets a strange surprise when the green orb influences the testimony of the witness he paid off. The fourth segment is a horror tale of the orb’s murderous rampage upon a WWII fighter plane. The fifth follows two stoner aliens and their robot as they try to influence Earth politics as well as woo an Earth woman. The last segment features a quiet female warrior who sets out to kill the leader of an evil army.

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WICKER PARK (2004) (***)

The trailer for this film looked awful, but the film turns out to be quite engaging with some great performances.

Matthew (Josh Hartnett, BLACK HAWK DOWN) is an advertising photographer who has moved back home to Chicago after living in New York for two years. He’s now engaged to the beautiful Rebecca (Jessica Pare, LOST & DELIRIOUS) and is putting together a big business deal in China. But this is all thrown into a tailspin when he believes that he has seen Lisa (Diane Kruger, TROY), the love of his life who happened to break his heart.

The film plays out like a thriller as Matthew desperately searches for Lisa. He meets up with an old friend named Luke (Matthew Lillard, HACKERS) and even gets wrapped up with a mysterious brown-haired woman named Lisa (Rose Byrne, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE).

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HAIR (1979) (**1/2)

Why do this musical in the late ‘70s? It was probably dated then and it sure is dated today. Claude Bukowski (John Savage, TV’s CARNIVALE) rides into New York on a bus from the Mid-West. He meets up with hippies George Berger (Treat Williams, THE DEVIL’S OWN), Jeannie (Annie Golden, IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY), Hud (Dorsey Wright, THE WARRIORS) and Woof (Don Dacus, only feature film). Claude is headed into the Army and the band of hippies tries to show him a drug-filled good time. George makes an effort to get Claude to meet rich girl Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION), who is wooed by the group’s style.

The musical embraces the carefree, rebellious attitude of the 1960s. However, the film seems to play more juvenile than thought provoking. The characters are bums, who don’t work and cheese off their parents when they get in trouble. If that’s not hypocrisy, then what is? I really think that the same exact material could be used as a damning critique of the hippie movement. It never sold the flower power message in a positive light for me.

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SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) (***)

After I first saw the trailers for this film, I really wanted to see it badly. Shaun (Simon Pegg, THE RECKONING) is an unmotivated man in his late twenties who works at an electronics store and spends most of his spare time in the pub with his best mate Ed (Nick Frost, British TV’s SPACED), a jobless bloke who spends his day on Shaun’s couch playing videogames.

Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield, BEYOND BORDERS) is fed up with him and his slacker behavior. She is backed up with this sentiment by her flatmate Dianne (Lucy Davis, TV’s THE OFFICE) and Dianne’s snobby boyfriend David (Dylan Moran, NOTTING HILL). Rounding out the cast is Shaun’s doting mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton, IRIS) and emotionless stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE), who Shaun doesn’t get along with. At first Shaun and Ed don’t really even notice that zombies have taken over London. Once they realize what’s going on, they decide to rescue Liz and Shaun’s mum and take them to the safest place they know – the pub.

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TROY (2004) (***)

In the same year, we get a nuanced rethinking of both THE ILIAD and King Arthur. Not that TROY and KING ARTHUR are bad films, but like it has been said – when you have the choice of printing the facts or the legend, print the legend.

TROY tries to be GLADIATOR in many ways. In an effort to build more character moments, they forgot the grand drama and spectacle that made films like BEN-HUR great. So strangely enough they fall into a weird middle ground between being grand epics or emotional historical adventures like BRAVEHEART. But in the end, I enjoyed TROY enough to encourage people to check it out.

On a peace mission to Sparta, Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) woos Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger, WICKER PARK) away from her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson, DARK BLUE). This upsets Paris’ father Priam (Peter O’Toole, MY FAVORITE YEAR) and brother Hector (Eric Bana, HULK). But more so it upsets Menelaus, who calls on his brother Greek king Agamemnon (Brian Cox, L.I.E.) to invade Troy. To succeed at this feat, the Greek King calls on his greatest warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt, 12 MONKEYS), who despises Agamemnon. During the invasion of Troy, Achilles falls for the Trojan royal niece Briseis (Rose Byrne, WICKER PARK).

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RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004) (**)

The original RESIDENT EVIL is horrible. To say the sequel is a little better isn’t saying much. However, it does keep up the status that no movie based on a videogame has ever been good.

Alice (Milla Jovovich, DUMMY) returns, finding herself as a guinea pig in an Umbrella Corp. lab. In the first film, Alice wanted to take down the company and ended getting wrapped up in a conspiracy involving bio-weapons and the living dead. Now the living dead have escaped from the lab and the people of Raccoon City are trapped, left to die by the all-powerful Umbrella baddies.

A top scientist Dr. Ashford (Jared Harris, HAPPINESS) is desperate because his daughter Angie (Sophie Vavasseur, EVELYN) is trapped in the city, which will be wiped off the Earth by a nuclear bomb in the morning. So he enlists people inside the city to rescue his daughter with the promise that he will get them out. How he contacts the people inside the city is a plot device so lame that you’d think it came from a videogame.

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OPEN WATER (2004) (***1/2)

This indie flick has been described as BLAIR WITCH PROJECT meets JAWS. I’m amazed at what was accomplished with a small budget and a director with only one other feature under his belt. Chris Kentis (GRIND) shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker to watch.

The film begins with Susan (Blanchard Ryan, SUPER TROOPERS) and Daniel (Daniel Travis, film debut) getting ready for a Caribbean vacation. We quickly find out that Susan has a very time consuming and demanding job that made the trip a last minute venture. The film works equally as a thriller and a character piece. The leads are very well observed and the dialogue is so truthful you’d think you’re watching a documentary. As the events play out that lead to Susan and Daniel being stranded out in the ocean, we really get a natural tension that is great.

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NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004) (**1/2)

I really wanted to like this movie, but in the end I’m fonder of certain moments than I am of the film as a whole. Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder, feature film debut) is a high school nerd who the other nerds wouldn’t even want to hang out with. He’s picked on viciously all the time and has developed a quick temper and cocky attitude to anyone who possibly could be a potential tormentor.

His older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell, forthcoming THINK TANK) is no better. He spends most of his day on Internet chat rooms talking to “chics.” After their Grandma (Sandy Martin, BARFLY) is sent to the hospital after a dune buggy accident, their uncle Rico (Jon Gries, REAL GENIUSES) comes to look after them. Rico is in his mid-forties and is terminally stuck in 1982 when he was a high school football star. He chronically embarrasses Napoleon with his new scam of the month. Napoleon befriends Pedro (Efren Ramirez, KAZAAM), the only Hispanic kid in the school. Through his own ineptness, Napoleon ends up hooking up Deb (Tina Majorino, WATERWORLD), the girl he likes, with Pedro.

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THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004) (***1/2)

I will freely admit that I have little faith in remakes. I will also admit that this remake when I first heard about it made me angry. I’m quite a fan of the original and thoughts of Van Sant’s PSYCHO went through my head. I also hated the idea of changing the setting to the original Gulf War. Brainwashing just seemed more feasible when Communists were involved.

However, what I got was an ode to current political paranoias like the original one was on fears of the 1950s. Director Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) has constructed a tight thriller with a lot to say about the current geo-political climate. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington, TRAINING DAY) is a decorated military officer who has been having dreams about an incident in Iraq just prior to the first Gulf War, which lead to Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, A WALK ON THE MOON) being decorated as a war hero. Now Shaw is the vice-presidential candidate and things don’t seem right to Marco, who tries to convince anyone who’ll listen that he isn’t crazy.

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LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING: EXTENDED EDITION (2003) (****)

Out of all the Extended Editions in this trilogy, this one isn’t better than the theatrical cut. For FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS, the Extended Edition made the film brilliant. Too many key character moments were cut for the theaters. For TWO TOWERS, the Extended Edition didn’t monumentally change the film, but it added some nice character moments that improved the story. For RETURN OF THE KING, many of the new moments make the sections they were added too seem to drag. I didn’t feel this way about any of the new scenes in the other two films.

I love the addition of Saruman (Christopher Lee, STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES) into the film. Something seemed unfinished without him in the theatrical cut, however the scene does go on a bit too long. Most of the other new moments flowed smoothly into the film. Toward the end the addition of the Mouth of Sauron character is nice, because the character is cool and the scene ends wonderfully, but the scene is too long and throws off the pacing in a key time in the film.

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KING ARTHUR (2004) (***)

I was quite surprised with this film. It takes a more historical look at the King Arthur legend. In the film, Arthur is a Briton who fights for Rome. His knights of the round table have been assigned a duty of fifteen years and have become famous for their fighting skills. A day before they are to be set free – Rome asks them to go on one more mission to save a favorite boy of the Pope who is trapped in a part of the country where the Saxons have taken over.

The mission is futile and dangerous. Rome is pulling out of Britain, because such a far off outpost is too hard to defend. They’re pretty much leaving it to the Saxons, who are lead by the vicious warrior Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard, BREAKING THE WAVES). Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, HORNBLOWER series) hates the mission and butts heads with Arthur over it. On the journey Arthur meets with Guinevere (Keira Knightley, BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), a female warrior of the Woads, who are lead by Merlin (Stephen Dillane, THE HOURS), who wants Arthur to help keep the Saxons out.

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INTERMISSION (2004) (***1/2)

This Irish film definitely comes from the “I’ve been influenced by PULP FICTION” land of filmmaking. But that’s not so bad, because the story and characters are original and interesting and the film is full of surprises.

The story follows several characters and shows how their lives cross each other. Right from the get-go the film has a twisted surprise in introducing Lehiff (Colin Farrell, PHONE BOOTH), a gruff street thug who has a thing for kitchen appliances. John (Cillian Murphy, 28 DAYS LATER) works at a Mega Mart and has just been dumped by his girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald, TWO FAMILY HOUSE), who has taken up with a married bank manager Sam (Michael McElhatton, BLOW DRY), whose abandoned wife, Noeleen (Deirdre O'Kane, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU), goes to a lonely-hearts dance and meets John’s best mate Oscar (David Wilmot, THE GENERAL).

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GARDEN STATE (2004) (***1/2)

SCRUBS star Zach Braff steps out from TV to direct and write this Sundance Film Festival discovery. Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who travels back home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Largeman hasn’t been home for nine years and hasn’t cried since he was child. He hasn’t felt much emotion at all for a long time because ever since he could remember he has been on lithium and various other mood-altering drugs proscribed to him by his psychiatrist father Gideon (Ian Holm, THE SWEET HEREAFTER).

Largeman has stopped taking his meds, because he feels that he has been living in an emotionless fog for way too long and needs to find himself. When home he meets up with old friends including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, SHATTERED GLASS), who works digging graves and spends most of his time in a different kind of drug-induced haze. Largeman then meets the eccentric, young woman Sam (Natalie Portman, CLOSER), whose infectious personality puts a smile on Largeman’s face for the first time in ages.

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SIDEWAYS (2004) (****)

Director Alexander Payne (ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT) gets better with each film he makes. If you want to categorize the film then it’s a road/buddy movie, but it’s really a humorous character study.

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti, AMERICAN SPLENDOR) is going through an emotional crisis regarding his purpose in the world. He’s a wanna-be novelist who’s doing time as an 8th grade English teacher. He’s a wine aficionado, which serves as a lovely cover for his alcoholism. His college friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, TV’s WINGS) is getting married and they have planned a trip to California’s wine country for a week. Miles is divorced and hasn’t had a relationship in two years. So Jack sets out to get Miles laid as well as himself.

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MEET THE FOCKERS (2004) (**1/2)

This is how I like to describe this film. It’s like that guy (and trust me you know this guy) at the party who tells a joke and gets a big laugh so he/she continues to rehash the same joke for the rest of the evening hoping to stay the center of attention. This sequel to MEET THE PARENTS is a product of the first film’s success.

The plot of meeting the future in-laws is a logical step to go, but no one found a strong enough story to tell. The only strength of the film is just the joy of seeing Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand together on the screen. Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller, REALITY BITES) has made some decent progress winning over his fiancée Pam’s (Teri Polo, BEYOND BORDERS) father, Jack Byrnes (DeNiro). Greg, Pam, Jack and Pam’s mother Dina (Blythe Danner, HUSBANDS AND WIVES) set out on the road to Florida to spend the weekend with Greg’s parents Bernie (Hoffman) and Roz (Streisand).

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THE AVIATOR (2004) (****)

Director Martin Scorsese goes grand again; this time dealing with the early professional life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio, WHAT’S EASTING GILBERT GRAPE?). Like Scorsese did with GANGS OF NEW YORK, he tells the grand, but troubled, life of Hughes, who took an inherited tool fortune and gambled it on risky film and aeronautic ventures, which eventually led to him becoming the richest man in the world.

The film is anchored by a stellar performance by DiCaprio, who convincingly shows Hughes’ inner demons with an irrational germ phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Over time he develops mental blocks that he just can't get over, such as simply exiting a public bathroom, fearing the germs lurking on the door handle. The film amazingly deals with the issue of the thin line between genius and madness. I loved the way the film dealt with the character’s struggle with compulsions that he knows are irregular, but has little choice in controlling them. But this film really isn't about the neurotic Hughes that everyone remembers, but the golden boy before he got lost in he dark forest of mental disease.

Blogs

GROSSE POINT BLANK (1997) (***1/2)

I saw this film in the theaters and remember liking it, but I kind of forgot about it. Now after rewatching it about seven years later, I’ve rediscovered a darkly funny film that made me laugh out loud. What’s so great about the film is that it works equally as a satire of hitmen movies, as well as high school reunions. A peculiar combo that works surprisingly well.

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack, HIGH FIDELITY) is an assassin for hire who started out in the business of murder in the Army. He’s returning to his hometown for his 10-year high school reunion. In a “what’s my life all about” crisis, he tries to give up the profession and rekindle a romance with his old flame Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver, GOOD WILL HUNTING), who he left broken hearted when he ditched town. To aid him in his emotional crisis, he’s in constant contact with his shrink Dr. Oatman (Alan Arkin, SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS). Rounding out the cast is rival hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd, GHOSTBUSTERS), Martin’s high school friend Paul Spericki (Jeremy Piven, JUST WRITE) and Martin’s assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack, IN & OUT).

Blogs

THE GENERAL (1927) (****)

I just love silent comedies. Sight gags work so well on film. Words get in the way sometimes and have a bigger chance of falling flat. In every one of my reviews of either Keaton, Lloyd or Chaplin, I’ve mentioned the others and I think I’ve seen enough of each filmmaker’s work to say they are equally great for different reasons and leave it at that.

In this film, Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a young train conductor who lives in the South at the time of the Civil War. He’s in love with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack, THE CARNIVAL GIRL). When Annabelle’s father and brother rush off to join the Confederate army when the North comes knocking, Annabelle pressures Johnny to join. He doesn’t seem like he really wants to, but he’ll do anything for his girl. However, went the army won’t take him, Annabelle refuses to see him any more. However, when the Union army steals Johnny’s train with Annabelle on it, Johnny heads after them.

Blogs

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI (2004) (***1/2)

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is a film legend in most parts of the world, but he is little known to the general public in the U.S. Cult fans will know him as the teacher in BATTLE ROYALE, which is an amazing film. ZATOICHI is a huge franchise in Japan with 26 films and a TV series. Actor Shintaro Katsu played the blind swordsman until his death. Kitano boils down the series to its essence and creates a pulp samurai/yakuza flick that fans of Quentin Tarantino will love.

Zatoichi (Kitano) is a blind masseur, who often finds himself in quick and deadly swordplay. He ends up fighting for the side of justice. This time around two geishas – O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana, film debut) and O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike, JU-ON 2) are seeking revenge on the gang that slaughtered their parents when they were children. Boss Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe, FIFTEEN) hires master swordsman Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano, ICHI THE KILLER), who only takes the job to help save his sick wife O-Shino (Yui Natsukawa, SPY SORGE). Throughout the film, Zatoichi stays with Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu, ZATOICHI: THE BLIND SWORDSMAN'S PILGRIMAGE) and her unlucky, loaf of a brother Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka, WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE), who give a good look at how the yakuza (gangster) affect the lives of the villagers.

Blogs

Nik & Nancy update: House Sale, not Yard Sale

Due to the continuing reports of impending rain for the weekend Nik and I
are holding our first house sale -- vintage hats, gloves, selected clothing
, costumes, kitchenware and many other household  items.  This sale is only
for our mailing list NOT FOR DEALERS OR THE PUBLIC AT LARGE!!!   PLEASE DO
NOT POST TO CRAIGSLIST!!!!!! If you have been to our parties and have had
you eye on something special in our house this might be your chance to take
it home with you.

Saturday and Sunday, January 8 & 9  (yep Nik's birthday!!!)

12:00 Noon to 5:00 PM  (dear friends, PLEASE Do Not arrive early)

2066  30th Avenue

San Francisco   (between Pacheco & Quintara)

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