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November 07, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Conversation' Blu-ray and more …

The Conversation (Blu-ray)

Lionsgate, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams.
As the “other” movie Francis Ford Coppola directed in the year of his Oscar-winning The Godfather Part II, this more modest jewel remains on the highest side of the repertory arthouse staples. Now that smartphones can do everything (including show movies), the “neat” techno stuff from The Conversation probably seems quaint to some — though with the brilliant Walter Murch as its sound editor, you can bet that the movie’s audio element was up to date for its day. This Lionsgate release artfully emphasizes film grain without descending into eyesore territory.
Extras: The bonus extras are a mix of retained oldies (including separate Coppola and Murch commentaries) and some shorter newbies. On one of the latter, the director’s former brother-in-law (composer David Shire) notes that his sparse piano score, abetted by Murch’s sound contribution, led him to land more spinoff work than anything in his musical career.
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Frontline: The Man Who Knew

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Though you can obviously go other places beyond a “Frontline” documentary to take the equivalent of a 700-level college course in irony, there aren’t many other places where you’ll get a bigger dose of the stuff than in this portrait of the late former FBI agent John O’Neill. “Former” is the operative word here — and though this DVD release is a tad off in commemorating this past September’s 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is (either by accident or design) very well-timed to the release of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, which will inevitably deal with the do’s and don’ts of Bureau image-making and the protection of one’s in-house turf. O’Neill didn’t like being constrained by the Bureau’s Criminal Division and wanted to fight al-Qaeda from a different vantage point within — which naturally ruffled those who worked in the Criminal Division. He was out of the loop when rumblings about a pending al-Qaeda attack began to emerge during the summer of 2001 — so much that he resigned from the Bureau and eventually became (through some string-pulling by friends) head of Security at the World Trade Center just 19 days before the 9/11 attacks.
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Travels With My Aunt

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen, Louis Gossett Jr., Cindy Williams.
Adapted from a Graham Greene novel that has little in common with the political intrigue of The Third Man or The Quiet American, George Cukor’s movie was originally intended as a vehicle for the director’s friend, Katharine Hepburn, in the auntie role of a bohemian eccentric who adds some needed globe-hopping zest to the life of a minor London bank exec/nephew who is used to more orderly ways. When the actress exited Aunt in a messy dispute with studio chief James Aubrey, some of the gas went out of the result. In her place came Maggie Smith (between Oscars, and she’d get another nomination here). This uneven but generally pleasing film at its weakest plays a little like a madcap party to which you haven’t been invited, yet its good and better moments are placed fairly rhythmically throughout. It is not just sumptuous, though that certainly helps: The cinematography, art/set decoration and costumes all got Oscar nominations, with a win in the last category. But 40 years ago, there also was the novel pleasure of watching an old-school Hollywood filmmaker in his 70s make a movie about interracial sex and marijuana usage.
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October 31, 2011

New on Disc: 'Island of Lost Souls' and more …

Island of Lost Souls

Criterion, Horror, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams.
Souls is a screen adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Filmed partly on Catalina Island, the decidedly pre-Code Souls was conceived in that great expressionistic early ‘30s Paramount style.
Extras: The set includes interviews with Gerald Casale and Mike Mothersbaugh of Devo, who made Souls’ “Are We Not Men?” catchphrase their own in the 1970s, as well as interviews with the likes of John Landis and others, plus an essay booklet and a punchy, funny commentary by historian Gregory Mank.
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Cape Fear (Blu-ray)

Universal, Thriller, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong violence and for language.
Stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis.
The Blu-ray of Martin Scorsese’s remake looks and sounds fantastic. Wesley Strick’s smart script is all about dysfunction and how Robert De Niro’s Max takes advantage of the lack of trust among his targeted family’s members.
Extras: An outstanding feature-length making-of documentary is carried over from the standard DVD.
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The Legend of Lylah Clare

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kim Novak, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine.
This Kim Novak camp fest is talky and way overripe but with a distinctively funny flavor all its own. Lylah deals with the Hollywood myth-making machine in the manner of Sunset Boulevard and Fedora. Overall, the movie has a sustaining dose of that elusive “something.”
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October 26, 2011

Cats and Robots of the 1980s

As the "Transformers" movies have demonstrated, cartoons from the 1980s have made quite an impression on the 2000s.

Classic Media has been re-releasing the 1980s animated series “Voltron” on DVD, beginning a few months ago with Voltron: The Legend Begins, collecting the first seven episodes, and continuing Nov. 1 with Voltron: The Final Battle, collecting the final few episodes ($12.99 each DVD). The show tells of five robot lions that combine to form a mighty warror named Voltron to battle evil across the galaxy. Legend Begins includes a guide to the show’s characters and concepts, while Final Battle includes previews of the new “Voltron Force” TV show and the new video game and toy line.

“Voltron” is just the latest 1980s toon getting spruced up for DVD. A&E Home Entertainment has released Robotech: The Complete Series ($99.95), a new 17-disc collection of the 1985 series. The saga dealt with the survivors of a future Earth after an alien war, and still holds up quite well. While the series has been released on DVD several times before, this collection includes several new retrospectives, alternate versions of episodes and deleted scenes, among hours of additional extras.

And Warner Home Video recently released its first DVD of the Cartoon Network remake of another 1980s cartoon, with Thundercats: Season 1 Book 1 ($19.97). This new version is faithful to the spirit of the original with a fresh animation style and more of a serialized storyline.

Of course, you probably can't go wrong with the most enduring of all franchise, "Star Wars," and the third-season DVD and Blu-ray of "The Clone Wars." The episodes are somewhat inconsistent, and the storytelling is heavily geared toward prequels and sequels of earlier episodes. But there are some memorable moments that tie into the movies, including a cameo by Chewbacca and a nod to the 1980s animated series "Droids."

Finally, Dec. 6 sees Shout! Factory release Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising, a DVD of the miniseries that kicked off the new CGI "Transformers" series now playing on The Hub. The $14.97 DVD edits the five episodes into a single movie, with extras including animatics and concept designs.

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October 24, 2011

New on disc: 'Page One: Inside the New York Times' and more …

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Magnolia, Documentary, B.O. $1.1 million, $26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, NR.
An engaging and even important documentary with a central flaw actually closer to a miscalculation in semantics, producer-director Andrew Rossi’s melancholy portrait of the Times in techno-peril was criticized, amid its mixed to positive reviews, for lacking focus. I’ve seen it twice and didn’t have that feeling either time. The mistake the marketers made was subtitling their documentary “Inside the New York Times” because there is infinitely more to the Times than what is presented here. Rossi’s tale is in some ways about the newspaper industry as a whole as it flirts with full collapse, using the Times as its main actor (and if you’re casting a movie about a big subject, you probably want to have the biggest superstar for your lead). No matter how the current crisis shakes out — with the complete death of print being the most apocalyptic of possible climaxes — Page One is likely to end up being a permanently valuable achievement because it will have captured where the industry was at a crossroads it had never come to before.
Extras: Carl Bernstein, who is interviewed in the movie, shows up as well in one of this release’s short bonus featurettes, which are not unwelcome but subordinate to a movie that will probably go down as one of the year’s top documentaries.
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The Guns of Navarone (Blu-ray)

Sony Pictures, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker.
There’s some mild, if discernible, new snap to the Blu-ray of the No. 1 box office attraction from 50 years ago — though here is a movie with restoration challenges formidable enough to rate a bonus-section featurette, one of many carried over to this appropriately priced Blu-ray from the 2007 Navarone “Collector’s Edition” standard DVD. Another movie about a wartime suicide mission that can’t possibly succeed (but does), Navarone deals with an Allied assignment that involves blowing up two huge guns (radar-controlled, which I thought was a neat touch at the time) that the Germans have fortressed inside some mountains over the Aegean Sea.
Extras: As with the other bonus featurettes, director J. Lee Thompson’s superb commentary — done when he was well into his 80s — is carried over from the DVD.
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Light in the Piazza

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton, Rossano Brazzi.
Piazza came out in February 1962, and as glossy soap operas go, it has its virtues — few of which have anything to do with a dubious premise that a standup mother would allow (and even all but lobby for) her mentally impaired daughter (Yvette Mimieux) to wed a sweetly immature Italian lad even when, admittedly, the two are crazy about each other. But it’s a hallmark of screen craftsmanship to make us accept what our minds tell us not to. At 45, lead Olivia de Havilland was still something of a stunner and her performance fully conveys one of a not especially subtle movie’s more complex dynamics. Whereas de Havilland’s character is authoritative with her daughter, she’s noticeably subservient to her gruff realist husband (Barry Sullivan) when he planes over from North Carolina for a brief visit to his vacationing family. But you can see from the way de Havilland chain-smokes that she probably is not happy to be bellowed at.
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October 17, 2011

New on Disc: 'Beautiful Boy' and more …

Beautiful Boy

Anchor Bay, Drama, B.O. $0.08 million, $26.98 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for some language and a scene of sexuality.
Stars Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Alan Tudyk, Moon Bloodgood, Kyle Gallner, Meat Loaf Aday.
If the viewing experience is drab, you can’t really say that it’s necessarily false to the central event being portrayed. The film focuses on a middle-aged couple (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) dealing with the aftermath of a college shooting in which their son was involved. You have to admire the filmmakers for having the nerve to take this story all the way.
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Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Ann-Margret, Alex Cord, Bing Crosby, Red Buttons.
As follies go, Fox’s instantly foredoomed remake of John Ford’s 1939 perennial isn’t without passable entertainment value — if for no other reason than it turned out to be the final theatrical feature of Bing Crosby.
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You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South

Street 10/18
Milestone, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, NR.
I was flummoxed even trying to identify this comparably unknown look back at the Highlander (TN) Research and Education Center — a sleeper that Lucy Massie Phenix co-directed with Veronica Selver that was recently restored as part of the center’s 80th anniversary.
Extras: There are several bonus featurettes, including an excerpt from a 1981 “Bill Moyers Journal” about Highlander co-founder Myles Horton.
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October 10, 2011

New on Disc: 'Le Beau Serge' and more …

Le Beau Serge

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Bernadette Lafont.
France’s Nouvelle Vague movement’s feature-film launch is credited to this rather brooding Claude Chabrol achievement, which the writer-director filmed in Sardent, the town where he’d resided during World War II while his father was fighting for the Resistance.
Extras: Included here is a standout 51-minute documentary from 2003 that interviews an ingratiating Chabrol on camera. There’s also a 10-minute snippet from another documentary done in 1969.
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Grandview, U.S.A.

Paramount, Comedy, $19.99 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Jamie Lee Curtis. C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze.
Not only does Grandview have the semi-obligatory rock video fantasy numbers that look like remnants from MTV — but also a cast that turns the result into a tolerably mellow experience.
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The Inspector General: Collector’s Edition

Shout! Factory, Comedy, $19.97 DVD, NR.
Stars Danny Kaye, Walter Slezak, Barbara Bates, Gene Lockhart.
This Technicolor farce set in 18th-century Hungary features Danny Kaye as an illiterate gypsy peddler of fake medicine who is mistaken for Napoleon’s prime sleuth of municipal theft, graft and corruption.
Extras: The DVD includes a rare 1938 Kaye comic short about life insurance, and some of director Henry Koster’s home movies.
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October 03, 2011

New on Disc: 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' Blu-ray and more …

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Blu-ray)

Street 10/4/11
Warner, Comedy, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Pee-wee Herman, Elizabeth Daily.
In terms of color, Blu-ray punctuates what has always looked like a nifty wax job on that “neat” bicycle Pee-wee possesses for a while — the theft of which puts him on the road to meeting (with us) an array of equally colorful characters.
Extras: You can see — in the deleted scenes from this resplendent straight carry-over from an earlier DVD release — that director Tim Burton, making his feature debut, had a pretty keen sense of what to include and what to excise.
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My Cousin Rachel

Available at www.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Richard Burton, Audrey Dalton.
Rachel was kind of a big deal upon its release for being the first film Olivia de Havilland did after winning two deserved Best Actress Oscars in three years: 1946’s To Each His Own and 1949’s The Heiress.
Extras: The print is spectacularly crisp, shadowy and detailed. As usual for Twilight Time, the DVD includes a Julie Kirgo essay and an isolated musical score track for screen music connoisseurs.
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American Experience: Houdini

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Narrated by Mandy Patinkin.
Produced a little more than a decade ago, this presentation is a good example of how one keeps a documentary moving when there isn’t a bottomless pool of existent real-life footage. Those interviewed include illusionist David Copperfield and late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
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September 26, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Caine Mutiny' Blu-ray and more …

The Caine Mutiny (Blu-ray)

Sony Pictures, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray.
Whatever negatives you want to spout about this iffy adaptation of novelist Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer winner, a powerhouse acting line-up delivers on its potential. Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Navy Capt. Philip Francis Queeg is still provocatively disturbing, but the movie is irksomely antiseptic (it needed the U.S. Navy’s cooperation) and a bit too jokey for most of its first 90 minutes before catching fire during the courtroom climax. In any event, this is a movie I’ve always liked when what I really wanted was to love it.
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Alex in Wonderland

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Federico Fellini, Jeanne Moreau.
Every bit as hippie-dippie-ish then as it will seem to anyone now, Paul Mazursky’s second directorial outing nonetheless merits its cult status — thanks in part to its lead performers and the basic decency of the characters they play.
Extras: A commentary with Mazursky.
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Cobra Woman

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Universal, Adventure, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu.
The irresistibly titled Cobra Woman is more than simply prototypical, offering Maria Montez playing twins at odds over the throne of a South Seas island.
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September 19, 2011

New on Disc: 'Genevieve,' 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' and more …


VCI, Comedy, $19.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth More, John Gregson, Kay Kendall.
More than halfway as essential, albeit more benignly, to the screen’s rich car-culture canon as Rebel Without a Cause and Two-Lane Blacktop, J. Arthur Rank’s international favorite and BAFTA winner also ranks among the glories of British Technicolor that cinematographer Jack Cardiff couldn’t claim. Written by that Missouri-born presence of British cinema William Rose, this remarkably civilized comedy compared to the crude bludgeonings of today may have a second built-in audience beyond auto enthusiasts. This would be … the sports widow. Except in this case, the sport is an annual London-to-Brighton trek on circa 1904 “wheels” when (even then) the cars in question were nearly half-a-century old. The comedy builds slowly and eventually finds its way to the realm of sheer delight.
Extras: Thanks to an unexpectedly vibrant transfer, VCI’s Blu-ray edition really pops my clutch — though as we learn on a look-back featurette that’s included, corporate Rank didn’t like the picture very much until it took the country by storm.
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The Incredible Shrinking Man

Universal, Sci-Fi, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent.
Of all the movies that took a gazillion years or at least a dozen to arrive on DVD, I’ve been puzzled by the MIA status of this Richard Matheson-Jack Arnold collaboration other than in a previously issued boxed set — filled with other sci-fi chillers from the Universal-International ‘50s stable (many fun but not many as first-rate). Given the fan base it has picked up over several decades — including the good folks at the Library of Congress who select all-timers for the National Film registry — Shrinking Man really merits a full-court-press edition with extras instead of this no-frills job, welcome as it is. At one point, its starving lead character is pleased to be munching on basement mousetrap bait, and I kind of feel the same way. Nuclear radiation is the story’s culprit, in this case, a mist that has passed over Grant Williams’ body. Within months, he is looking up at his wife, and it gets worse — and this is the beauty of the movie. Ultimately living in a kid’s dollhouse and later a matchbox, Williams sees ordinary household items we all take for granted become intimidating (pin cushion, paint can) while routine domestic creatures (a now-behemoth spider, housecat-turned-“Simba”) become objects of terror.
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House of Women

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Shirley Knight, Andrew Duggan, Constance Ford, Barbara Nichols.
This burn-on-demand obscurity often is lazily referred to as a remake of Caged, the definitive women’s prison movie, though its only real similarities are a sweet-faced innocent as heroine (Shirley Knight for Eleanor Parker) and Warner Bros. as its home studio. Women’s premise actually has some promise. It’s the only movie of its kind I can think of that exploits the mass maternal instincts of its inmates as a major plot point. This is because — until they’re old enough for adoption — a slew of convict toddlers reside in their own wing, even though a cuckolded male warden, played by Andrew Duggan (at that time, the hardest working man in Warner Bros. show business), is unambiguously vocal about his opposition. The other intriguing plot point is Duggan’s eventual employment of Knight’s character as a domestic in his home, where she may or may not be unwillingly sleeping with him. The movie is kind of cagey about this — though during the climax, she sure seems to know where in his bedroom he keeps a revolver.
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September 12, 2011

New on Disc: 'Bill Cunningham New York' and more …

Bill Cunningham New York

Street 9/13
Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $1.49 million, $29.99 DVD, NR.
As tough as it must be fashioning fictional movies that deal with so-called lovable eccentrics who too often cloy, filmmaker Richard Press absolutely hit the mother lode in his deservedly praised documentary about Bill Cunningham, the New York Times’ premier chronicler of fashion trends in the reader magnet “On the Street” column. Director Press says it took him about 10 years to get this documentary on film, eight of which involved just getting Cunningham to do it. In other words, we’re talking about an extremely private person for someone who is otherwise easily spottable out and about zipping around town. The result is a nice dovetail with the recently-in-theaters Page One: Inside the New York Times (this is its equal, in fact), as well as 2009’s The September Issue, which profiled American Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
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The Flim-Flam Man

Available at ww.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars George C. Scott, Michael Sarrazin, Sue Lyon.
A relatively soft-sell comedy trapped in one of the hardest-selling genres of all, this acclaimed sleeper of its day probably helped lead the way to the more heavy-handed rural comedies with Burt Reynolds (usually directed by Hal Needham) that always played to me as if they were aimed at the “wife beater at the drive-in” demographic. As such, the unknowing might not routinely peg FFM as a George C. Scott vehicle — though it boasts one of the actor’s signature performances in a role (it has been said) that he regarded as his personal favorite. The title definitely merits a truth-in-advertising citation, in that William Rose’s script (adapted from a Guy Owen novel) cast the 39-year-old Scott as a 70-ish con artist who travels by train (boxcars to be precise) while earning his living bilking hardware store loiterers in games of chance. The movie’s director was Irvin Kershner — who, despite landing The Empire Strikes Back and 007’s Never Say Never Again relatively late in his career, was typed as a filmmaker known for “good little movies” substantially more quirky than even this one: The Hoodlum Priest, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Loving and Up the Sandbox.
Extras: Julie Kirgo notes in her booklet essay that you tend to forget about Scott’s extensive old-age makeup after a while — which is not to say that it isn’t a piece of work.
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The Burning Hills

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Tab Hunter, Natalie Wood, Skip Homeier, Earl Holliman.
It’s just a guess, but we almost have to be talking about the only teen-dream movie ever aimed at the vintage fan magazine demographic that also was based on a Louis L’Amour novel. The picture casts Tab Hunter as a character named Trace (you could almost interchange the names) opposite Natalie Wood. The studio tried to sell the two being-groomed performers as a couple and even teamed them again before the same year was out in The Girl He Left Behind. Playing another “Maria,” Wood tries out her future West Side Story Puerto Rican accent (where it worked a little better) to play the hot and hot-spirited daughter of a Yankee father and Mexican mother who schleps food to Tab/Trace when he’s healing in a cave. This is his reward for having shot and wounded the local land baron, horse thief and employer of professional killers who killed Hunter’s brother.
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