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Friday, December 2, 2016

Review: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the saddest movie I've ever seen

This was my first experience with Kenneth Lonergan, as a director at least. I've heard a lot of my colleagues cite his 2011, and much beleaguered, film, Margaret, as one of the best efforts of the decade thus far. When you get that sort of effusive praise, it's hard not to get excited about what might around the corner. I went into Manchester by the Sea not knowing a whole lot except that it's very Bostonian and Casey Affleck is quite good in it.

Both of these things are true, but the real takeaway is just how unrelentingly sad it all is. To be clear, if someone said: "make a proper approximation of grief for the moving picture" this would be a pretty solid contender for it. Even from its pitch: the ever morose-eyed Affleck plays an apartment handyman named Lee whose older brother passes away and leaves Lee as the sole guardian of his son, Patrick. Lee, a man struggling with a previously devastating loss - one that cuts even deeper than the death of a sibling - has become someone without real purpose. He just lives, but isn't alive. His first reaction to his brother's will is one of indignation and refusal, remembering the pain of something so emotionally destructive, a wound that can never really heal - can he take on this responsibility for the growing young man? Can he return to Manchester and face his ex-wife who still haunts the town like a spectre of the past? Can he overcome the scorn of those that remember what once was and how it all came crashing down?

You'll note I used the words "grief", "devastating", "emotionally destructive", Manchester by the Sea is both in part a moving motion picture, but also litmus test in just how much an audience can surrender themselves to their worst possible emotional reflexes. When your film opens with the death of a loved one, or rather, the aftermath of it at the hospital, you get a sense of just how grueling an experience this is going to be. I'm loathe to make the comparison, but the opening act has a lot of echoes of Joss Whedon's "The Body" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realize that sounds ridiculous, but it conjures up some of the same ugly material that resides in each of us in the face of sudden loss. 

From there, it's a film of small moments, with a focus on naturalism that will either fully invest you or may prove to be too much for some. Everything Lee does, be it try to convince Patrick to move to Boston with him, or help him reconnect with his mother, or get in a fight in a bar, or trying to make conversation with Patrick's girlfriend's mother. There's sense of shagginess throughout that aims to reflect the struggles of real life, especially that of someone in emotional recovery. This isn't the story of the revelational moment, there isn't a point to which Lee suddenly figures out that he can be human again, instead his life continues to creep along and he reacts to things as they come. Again, this will be tough for some viewers, with a narrative far slower moving than the average - shots linger galore, and its pulverization via sorrow perhaps begins to compact on itself. But what Lonergan is aiming for isn't just entertainment for entertainments sake, but instead the construction of a portrait that is all too human. The struggle of a man to face the day, even when the world is utterly suffocating him.

Affleck gives perhaps the best performance of his career, striking a magical combination of the insular and the relatable. He's a wonder to behold, and this is his best work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Lucas Hedges, the aforementioned Patrick, is startlingly good as a character that shares a few significant traits with Lee, particularly the emotional closeting that allows him to get through each 24 hours without breaking down in tears. Patrick is also one of the sources of black humor that pops up frequently, particularly in his sexual escapades. This is another element of loss that Lonergan gets, the occasional weirdly dark funny things that sometimes pop up in the face of it all.

It's a strikingly beautiful film too, with wintry shots of New England providing the physical embodiment of the emotive climate of its protagonist, while also just being evocative for its own sake. And its narrative structure is pretty admirable as well, with sudden flashback cuts that fill in the gaps that we aren't privy to. They come and go, and discombobulate you at first, but in its way that too is a representation of mourning and the eventual restoration process.

It's long, maybe too long for its own good with one , and Michelle Williams' performance never quite struck the right chord with me, but otherwise this is a film that lingers and has stuck with me in small part ever since I saw it. In the moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks. If you're prepared for it, you should see it.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 154

 Ghostbusters International #11
by Dan Schoening

I've been loving the minimalist covers on this book, and this one really does a nice job of creating depth and contrast.

Shutter #24
by Leila Del Duca

I've always loved the consistent frame of this series, and the way it always breaks that frame. Here we've got colors not so often seen on covers used together and a frame within a frame that is also broken. It's visually quite interesting and eye-catching!

Tank Girl Gold #2
by The Black Frog

I love the style here and the orangish tint to the coloring. This wraparound works and is really fun!

Wacky Raceland #6
by Cully Hamner

I love the idea of showing the perspective of just after and just away from the crash itself, with the flying wreckage being the focus. Bold and fun!

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Buried Alive Film Festival 2016: Best of Feature Films

For the second year in a row, I was invited to cover Atlanta's Buried Alive Film Festival, one of the finest horror film fests in the country. This year the festival took place at the lovely 7 Stages and was host to over 75 short films and 9 feature films, a huge jump from last year. The festival was bigger and better than ever, and I highly recommend going next year if you're a horror fan! 

There were a lot of good feature films this year, and it was very difficult to pick the best and the runner up. Make sure to check out the other films further down the list–they're all worth a watch! Also, see my picks for the best short films of the festival here.


Another Evil
Dir. Carson D. Mell – USA – 90 min

Another Evil is ostensibly a ghost hunting comedy, at least at first glance. Abstract painter Dan (Steve Zissis) discovers that his mountain getaway home is haunted, but an initial investigation reveals that the ghosts are not evil and that he shouldn't get rid of them. Unsatisfied, Dan calls in Os (Mark Proksch), a self-proclaimed ghost assassin, to get rid of the paranormal entities. Over time, the laid back Dan and quirky Os become friends, but Os's tactics and insistence that there are still ghosts in the house soon get on Dan's nerves, climaxing in a disagreement that turns frightening in the third act as Dan's family arrives at the house.

On the surface, the film is a pretty good and fairly unique comedy. It will undoubtedly draw comparison to last year's Creep, which used the found footage model to do the awkward friendship turned scary thing very well. There are two things which really set this apart, however: a surprisingly subtle story building in the background, and the incredibly funny Mark Proksch. For those who aren't familiar with Proksch from his minor character on The Office, check out his K-Strass character who pranked dozens of morning shows by pretending to be a yo-yo master. It's that level of deadpan improv, the seriousness in which he relates his absurd backstory in this film that makes this both extremely funny and also kind of upsetting.

But more on that background story: Another Evil does a fantastic job of building up both its main characters with multiple fake backstories that they tell each other, none completely true or completely false it seems. These stories serve two higher purposes, the first being that they subtly lead to Os's unsettling revelation about the true source of Dan's haunting (which, given the paranormal things that have been happening, could potentially be true in the world of the film). The other purpose, however, is in building on the thematic idea that one of the scariest things to most people is sharing who they really are, the things they've done in the past. Overlaying this sort of embarrassing fear with the surprisingly congruous one of paranormal activity is kind of brilliant, and it works very well here.

Despite this being visually one of the less interesting films of the fest (it all takes place inside a house, with two guys mostly just hanging out), it ended up being the one that intrigued me and engaged me the most. Well worth a viewing!


Nova Seed
Dir. Nick DiLiberto – Japan/Canada – 64 min
Official Site

Nova Seed took me totally by surprise. This very short feature directed by video game animator Nick DiLiberto clocks in at only 64 minutes, but packs a walloping punch and was probably the most visually (and aurally) beautiful film of the festival.

Nova Seed is a animated feature that takes place in a strange future world that lies somewhere between Adventure Time and Heavy Metal. The world is falling apart, and the militaristic humans blame the evil Doctor Mindskull, who claims he is remaking the world in his own image. There is a race of animals that are given sentience and near-superpowers by having magic crystals implanted in their bodies, and the army wishes to use them to gain access to Mindskull's fortress. One of these animals, a lion, discovers that the source of Mindskull's power is a young girl, and he escapes the army to rescue her and take on Mindskull himself.

First to note is the absolutely gorgeous animation of the film, which is colorful, smooth, and psychedelic. This is the kind of animated film I've been waiting for years to see, the kind we used to see all the time prior to computer animated films. Reading about it later, I discovered that Nova Seed was animated entirely by hand, which no doubt is the reason it looks so unique (and also why it's so short!). The thumping techno music by Stephen Verrall also plays a big role, adding a hypnotic layer to the action.

The film is totally beautiful, and is able to create a richer and more full realized world than any of the live action films at the fest, and manages to do it in just barely over an hour. While this may seem too short, know that there is not a single dull moment in the film as it races seamlessly from one action-packed sequence to another. This is one I'm very excited to revisit over and over, and probably the film I'll be watching the closest as I anxiously await where it goes next!

~ Other great films (in no particular order) ~

The Night Watchmen
Dir. Mitchell Altieri – USA – 80 min
Official Site

This film takes the mold of the ill-equipped heroes fighting off a zombie horde à la Shaun of the Dead and places it on an office building with some goofy security guards. The main characters (played by Ken Arnold and Kevin Jiggetts) are funny and have great chemistry; you can tell that the whole cast has worked together before. Kara Luiz is also a highlight as the woman from the office who refuses to play the damsel in distress. The Night Watchmen looks great, has fun music, and is a good start for a talented team!

The Master Cleanse
Dir. Bobby Miller – USA – 81 min

This was a real contender for the top two spots–this odd film follows a lonely man (Johnny Galecki) as he goes on a mysterious toxin-cleansing retreat only to find that something much stranger (and grosser) is being cleansed out of their bodies. The script is funny, and the cast (which includes Anjelica Huston!) is pretty great. There's some very interesting and relevant stuff going on thematically with the way we deal with the unwanted parts of ourselves, but the real star here is the excellent visual effects and puppet work on the creatures that bring physical form to those unwanted parts.

Here Alone
Dir. Rod Blackhurst – USA – 89min
Official Site

Here's something unexpected: a patient post-apocalyptic drama from one of the directors of this year's Amanda Knox documentary. Here Alone tells two stories simultaneously: one of Ann (Lucy Walters) fleeing into the forest to live with her husband and baby as a viral outbreak takes hold of the world, the other of Ann much later living alone and encountering a man and his daughter (Adam David Thompson and Gina Piersanti) in the wilderness. It is a slow, methodical film, but never feels dull as it explores the life of Ann and the ways she has discovered how to survive. This all makes the sparse action sequences when the characters have to make food runs amid the violent infected all the more intense, and the careful character work in both the script and the talented cast make you care quite a bit about their safety. One of the standouts in the flooded sub-genre.

Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgement
Dir. Neil Edwards – USA / UK / Canada – 101 min
Official Site

This was a fascinating documentary about The Process Church, an English group (cult?) that travelled the world and spread the gospel of opposites, worshipping both Satan and Christ equally. The mysterious group got a lot of attention back in the 60's and 70's, and some notoriety when the group was (perhaps wrongly) connected with the Manson murders and the Satanic Panic phenomenon. The story is pretty enthralling, and the documentary is exceptionally well made, full of animated photos, footage, and entertaining graphics to tell the strange tale. The film is maybe a bit overlong–at a certain point it feels like the same photos are being used over and over again–but aside from that this is one of the best documentaries I've seen all year.

Found Footage 3D
Dir. Stephen DeGennaro – USA – 96 min
Official Site

We've seen lots of found footage horror films, and we've seen lots of meta-horror films at this point, so what makes this one different? It's 3D! That's essentially the premise for this faux behind the scenes film of a 3D found footage film about a spectre that haunts a couple trying to make things work in a haunted cabin. While this could have just been a clever mixture of worn out tropes, it ends up being much more than the sum of its parts. It works great as a loving homage to the best (and worst) of found footage films, making fun of the difficulty in awkwardly explaining why the characters would still be filming, but simultaneously creates one of the best of the genre, with its final act being both ingenious and pretty frightening. Found Footage 3D does for found footage films what Scream did for the slasher, and fans of the sub-genre (or filmmaking in general) will enjoy this smart addition to the small subset of good found footage films.

Bad Blood: The Movie
Dir. Tim Reis – USA (Local) – 80 min
Official Site

Paraphrasing the director, Bad Blood: The Movie could've either been a decent werewolf film or the best werefrog film, which allowed them to work in a "smaller pond" (pun intended). The result is a really fun horror film in the vein of Stuart Gordon, a science-based monster transformation movie with a lot to love. It's quite well done, and I especially enjoyed the female lead (Mary Malloy) as a victim who in reality is much more. The film is packed with fun characters and ideas, and although they maybe could've done a little more thematically with the idea of amphibious transformation, it's a damn entertaining movie!
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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Buried Alive Film Festival 2016: Best of Short Films

For the second year in a row, I was invited to cover Atlanta's Buried Alive Film Festival, one of the finest horror film fests in the country. This year the festival took place at the lovely 7 Stages and was host to over 75 short films and 9 feature films, a huge jump from last year. The festival was bigger and better than ever, and I highly recommend going next year if you're a horror fan! 

Now without further ado, here are my picks, in no particular order, for the best short films of the festival:

Night of the Slasher
Dir. Shant Hamassian – USA – 11min
Official Site

This one starts with a great idea: the main character is a young girl who is breaking all the slasher movie rules in an effort to attract the slasher so she can kill him. The twist: it's all done in one take, and done very well at that. This one was clever, funny, and impressive, and best of all you can watch the whole thing above!

Girl #2
Dir. David H. Jeffery – USA – 9 min

This was another slasher themed short with a different approach: while two sorority girls are trying desperately to escape an axe-wielding murderer, they end up arguing about who is the hottest girl who will likely get killed first. It's a really clever twist that plays on tropes and does some great character work in a short time. This was one of the funniest films of the festival!

The Call of Charlie
Dir. Nick Spooner – USA – 14 min
Official Site

Another very funny film, but this one plays instead with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Some old friends show up unexpectedly for a dinner party and find that one of the guests is Charlie, essentially Cthulu in a business suit. Much confusion ensues as the old friends are baffled by everyone else being calm, with one of the other guests even being smitten with the unspeakable horror that is Charlie. This short is a really wonderful mix of cosmic horror and upper class dinner party humor, and is something I never knew I needed in my life!

Babysitter Murders
Dir. Ryan Spindell – USA – 22 min
Official Site

"The Babysitter Murders" was one of my favorite films of the festival, although it was another play on the slasher genre (very popular this year). This exceptionally well done short gets a little meta as it uses a fake slasher movie-within-the-movie to mirror the protagonist, a babysitter who hears on the radio that there is an escaped mental patient on the loose. What follows is an expertly edited slasher with a wicked twist that really turns the whole thing on its head. It scratches the same nostalgia itch as something like Stranger Things does, and is stylish enough that it warrants multiple viewings.

Dir. Tim Egan – Australia – 10 min
Official Site
This might've been the most unique horror short of the festival, and definitely one of the most memorable. The concept is very simple: a woman wakes up to find herself on a strange, smooth concrete surface that has a steep curve down towards a dark pit. Through sound design alone, we are clued in that the pit is somehow sentient and has trapped others before. For the 10 minute running time of the short, the woman desperately has to find ways to cling on and not slide down, fighting the slipperiness of the blood on her scraped up hands and the oncoming thunderstorm. This was tacticle horror of a totally different kind than any of the other shorts, one of survival in an abstract situation. 

The Past Inside the Present
Dir. James Siewert – USA – 12min
Official Site

This one would really be at home as much in an experimental shorts block as it was here. Using a unique blend of stop-motion-like live action and black and white animated overlays, this short aims to tell a story of a couple who literally plug their heads into VHS recordings of their memories to try and rekindle their relationship. It is visually fascinating and pretty unique, and I'm a sucker for well-done experimental short films, so this definitely makes my list! They're running a pretty interesting campaign on their site with very cool behind the scenes footage, so check it out!

Mars IV
Dir. Guillaume Rieu – France – 15 min

"Mars IV" is only sort of a horror film, with its real roots in speculative science fiction, but it left a lasting impact on me. A French spaceship crew is taking part in a mineral study on Mars, and the discovery of a huge gold deposit creates a moral conundrum. Meanwhile, they are constantly encouraged by their robot to always leave their AR (augmented reality) on so they don't get "the red," a form of madness that claimed earlier crews. The film is really well designed and very well thought out, hitting a lot of interesting points in a short time span. With a slightly larger budget for CGI effects, I could see this becoming a very successful feature film.

As always, I encourage readers to seek out and support short films by going to film festivals and donating to crowdfunding campaigns. Crowdfunding has opened up a whole new way for shorts to get funded, but there still isn't a better way to see them or discover new filmmakers than by going to film festivals! Look out for my picks for the best feature films in the coming days!
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Monday, November 21, 2016

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 153

Black Monday Murders #4
by Tomm Coker

I'm not sure if I've highlighted any of these covers yet, but Coker is doing some excellent cartooning and design work on them!

Cage #2
by Bruce Timm

What's the only way a 70's Luke Cage book by Genndy Tartakovsky can get better? The definitive answer: by having a cover by Bruce Timm.

Death of X #4
by Aaron Kuder

I've been a fan of Kuder's dynamic designs and bold color for a while now, and this one is certainly one of his most eye-catching.

Judge Dredd #12
by Ulises Farinas

I really like the depth and framing of this one, with the main subject only in the top corner and the the doomy foreshadowing in the foreground.

Lake of Fire #4
by Matt Smith and Nathan Fairbairn

The depth and use of lighting here are really nice; the way they use the shadowy foreground to separate the characters from the foggy background is pretty beautiful.

Star Wars: Han Solo #5
by Mike Del Mundo

They've done an excellent job with these Millennium Falcon variants, and this one is no exception. A great but simple concept and bold coloring by the amazing Del Mundo make this one a standout!

Wonder Woman #11
by Jenny Frison

Frison knocks another cartooning marvel out of the park! Great detail, stirring emotion, and close-up framing make this one unique and wonderful.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN breathes some needed life into the teen drama

The teen/coming of age drama has really had its ebbs and flows in recent years. While standouts like Boyhood and The Spectacular Now have popped up as standard bearers for the best of what that genre can produce, let's just say there tend to be a good deal more The Way, Way Backs than there are Palo Altos.

So it's with great excitement that I can say that The Edge of Seventeen continues the path forward of that very intriguing Gia Coppola film, but does so under the broader interests of something that Diablo Cody might craft up. Kelly Fremon Craig has, with this debut effort, designed something that could be labeled as a bit of a millennial version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, positing a sincere portrait of upper middle class adolescence and the struggle to belong while also trying to be as original as possible.

As someone who sits kind of in between the end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennials, I can find a lot to identify with in Nadine's struggle to understand the generation that surrounds her. I never quite had those same issues, there were no iPhones when I was in high school...we didn't even have particularly reliable internet my entire high school experience. So, there's a bit of a quality to Nadine that hearkens more to the generation I grew up in - a sort of weird in-betweener group that held that same interests and attitudes of Generation X, but was a bit of a poorer facsimile in some ways - sort of a Silverchair to their Nirvana. It's an interesting thematic piece to take on, even if it's not really the fulcrum of the movie, it's what strikes the most immediately. 

This disconnect is played to its best extent in the interactions between Nadine and her teacher, and go-to source of emotional sound boarding, Mr. Bruner. It's here where you get some of the best back and forth of the entire film, and even when the plot wants to veer into slightly maudlin territory, it usually is ripped right back into shape when both Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson are on the screen. The misunderstood teen and the uninterested, but still compassionate, high school instructor. 

For Steinfeld epsecially, this is the "comeback" vehicle she's needed to follow-up her mega-breakout in True Grit, which feels like it was ages ago. She perfectly inhabits the role of a teen carrying years that far outweigh those of her actual number, and her outsider fragility is eerily both familiar and comforting. It helps that she's also playing off some tremendously funny material that gets better as the running time rolls on.

The plot of the film doesn't really sound like something that should be considered all that revolutionary or even novel: two girls are best friends, one of them gets romantically involved with the other's older brother, and it creates what looks to be irreconcilable strife between the two. On the surface, it's rather been there, done that, but it's the way these characters are sketched out and their various points of growth are elaborated upon from this familiar jumping off point that allows Craig's script to sore. 

This is a young woman who is struggling to overcome the loss of her father, juxtaposed with a brother who has had to be the main familial organizer in the wake of that loss. There's a real, heavy weight impacting both of these youths and really it's one of the better looks at how unexpected bereavement can impact and change the course of a family altogether. There's a certain moment towards its close that left me pretty shaken emotionally, and it comes off some blisteringly raw dialogue from Blake Jenner, another standout. The movie never quite veers into teary-eyed environs, but it's a narrative that understands both what it is and what it needs to be, while also attempting to broaden its scope just enough that it provides some element of hope for a genre that constantly threatens to go pretty stale.

This is a filmmaker to keep an eye out for.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Two Movies for the Price of One?

I walked into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them expecting I might have a few 
problems. The first was a concern probably shared by many that I’d dub “The Hobbit Effect” – a concern that drawing five movies out of a very small piece of source material meant we were in for a slog of barely-there plot intended to keep drawing us to the franchise until we hit retirement. I’ve got good news and bad news on that one: clocking in at almost two and a half hours, Fantastic Beasts has no lack of story. In fact, it’s almost got two completely separate-feeling films crammed together, each of which had merits, but the combination of which felt jarring. 

The first half, or what I’d call Film One, was pretty much what I expected from the first entry in this franchise. A lot of place-setting, to be sure, but with some wonderful merits. The first hour of the film mostly focuses on wizard Newt Scamander‘s (Eddie Redmayne) illegal import of a suitcase full of mystical creatures from all over the world into the United States. After a typical grabbed-the-wrong bag snafu, Scamander’s creatures accidentally escape into the city, and he enlists the help of a muggle, Jacob (Dan Fogler) and wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) to track them down. This first half of the movie was full of some really great humor, for adults and likely especially for kids. I especially loved Fogler’s take on the “what is happening?” muggle pulled into Scamander’s world. You’d expect the fantastic beasts to be the focus of this film, and for the most part they are in this first half.

Then we have Film Two. This second half of the film is really dark in tone; surprisingly so for a film so light on its feet at the start. This back half of the movie focuses on a sort of cult-like group of humans who protest the presence of witches and wizards in their midst. They’re mostly laughed off as extremists, but when a magical incident takes the life of a prominent politician, their message gains more traction. It’s hard to say much else about this part of the film without giving way to spoilers, but this half is probably what frustrated me the most about Fantastic Beasts, because I felt like there was a movie I really wanted to see in there, but never quite got.

So, coming out of Fantastic Beasts, I’m honestly surprised to say: this film actually tried to do too much in the space of one movie. I liked the first half a lot, and there were concepts in the second half I really liked, but none of them had the room to breathe – lots of plot, not a lot of emotion or thought, crammed together too fast to really give its message enough weight. I think it could have lost a good 30 minutes off of the run time and saved some of the headier concepts for the second installment to really give them a chance to develop.

That brings me to the second problem I thought I’d have, but didn’t, with Fantastic Beasts: Eddie Redmayne. I know I’m probably completely alone on this, but he’s not an actor I’m usually a fan of. Here, though, I thought he was perfect; a little more restrained, shy, and measured than performances he’s given in the past. It felt a bit like his personal take on The Doctor from Doctor Who. Everyone in this film was well-cast, with the exception of a very small role that I won’t get into for fear of spoilers.

This movie definitely subverted my expectations – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I imagine fans of the franchise will find enough here to rekindle their interest from the original series, but I can’t say it lives up to the unique feeling of the Harry Potter films. Fantastic Beasts straddles an interesting line between adult-oriented messaging and child-oriented world building, never completely committing to either camp, and as a result, never really hitting home as hard as it could on either side.

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