Tag Archives: film history

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

It was the film announcement heard ’round the world: George Lucas was returning to the realm of Star Wars to create a prequel trilogy to the original films. Given that this took place just before social media really took off (no Twitter, no Facebook, not even YouTube), excitement was at a fever pitch, with everyone speculating on how the origins of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others would be shown.

I remember being over the moon excited about this. I’d always been jealous that my parents had gotten to see the original Star Wars movies in the theater, and now (as I saw it), here was my chance to see a new Star Wars film on the big screen, just like they did so many years ago.

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“What’s this?” “A local.”

The Phantom Menace (if I understand the timeline correctly), takes place just over 20 years before the Battle of Yavin (the climax of Episode IV). The Republic rules the galaxy, but corruption is starting to take over. While escorting the young Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman) to the galactic capital Coruscant, Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) encounter an extremely Force-sensitive boy named Anakin Skywalker on the planet Tatooine (and he ultimately ends up leaving with them after helping the group secure the parts to fix their ship by winning a podrace). Ultimately, Naboo is saved from the vile Trade Federation, Anakin becomes Obi-Wan’s apprentice, and Senator Palpatine is now the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, all in all it sounds like a great story, but was it really?

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I still debate this question to myself from time to time. Considering that I was only 11 when I saw this film in the theater, I couldn’t understand for a long time why people didn’t like this film. My thinking was “It’s Star Wars, so it’s automatically awesome!” And yet, as time went on, I found myself preferring to watch the original trilogy over the prequels. What happened?

I don’t think there will ever be a universal consensus, but for The Phantom Menace there is one element that everyone agrees they hate: Jar Jar Binks. Of course *I* thought he was funny…until I grew up, and the humor got old after the 12th viewing. I know Jake Lloyd (the child actor who played Anakin) has received a lot of flak for his performance, but for goodness’ sake he was what, 9 years old? Given everything he had to work with, I think he did a great job in the role.

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Episode I: The Phantom Menace “Duel of the Fates” (1999)

Problems aside, the lightsaber duel (accompanied by “Duel of the Fates”) at the climax of the film was beyond awesome in my young eyes. Darth Maul was beyond terrifying, and it was really all well done. I remember gasping in horror when Qui-Gon got impaled too, I did NOT see it coming and I really wanted Qui-Gon to live. Looking back, the lightsaber duel between Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan remains one of the few highlights in a film that hasn’t aged terribly well (especially where some of its CGI effects are concerned).

It goes without saying that the rest of the score was equally as amazing (in seven movies there hasn’t been a bad Star Wars score yet and I don’t think there ever will be).

I think only time will tell how good (or bad) The Phantom Menace really was.

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For more Star Wars see also:

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, My Thoughts!!

Star Wars, the one that started it all! (1977)

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the saga concludes (or does it?)

A Random Thought on “The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The Good

Star Wars: The Last Jedi- The Bad

Star Wars: The Last Jedi-The Ugly

*film poster is the property of Walt Disney Studios

Shrek (2001) upends fairy tales!

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I have a confession: knowing that Shrek is fifteen years old today makes me feel exceptionally old (and I’m only 27).

On this day in film history, Shrek was released by DreamWorks Pictures and established the studio as a competitor to Pixar in the world of computer animation (as the technology used in Shrek was state of the art at the time of release). The film is a combination of a parody film and a fractured fairy tale in that, at times the film openly mocks pop culture (Duloc is a parody of Disneyland) and it also twists the original fairy tales (princesses are supposed to be rescued by handsome princes and defended FROM the ogre, not vice versa).

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In this story, reclusive ogre Shrek (Mike Meyers) is forced into a quest to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) for the spineless Lord Farquad (John Lithgow) when his swamp home is overrun with fairy tale refugees driven out by Farquad (who desires perfection above all else, and fairy tale creatures don’t belong as far as he is concerned). Fiona appears to be a spoiled princess upon first meeting: she’s miffed that she’s been rescued by an ogre and not “Prince Charming”, she’s rude and demanding, but over time she, Shrek and Shrek’s annoying sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy) reach an understanding.

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But Fiona has a BIG secret of her own. It turns out (*spoiler alert*) that she’s under a curse: by day she’s a gorgeous princess, but by night, she turns into an ogre (a female version of Shrek, to be precise). She tries to tell Shrek about it because she discovers she wants to go off with the ogre (and to heck with “happily ever after”) but due to a misunderstanding, Shrek thinks that Fiona hates him for being a “beast” (not realizing that Fiona was talking about herself). As a result, an unhappy Fiona ends up being led away by Lord Farquad (who also has no idea about his bride-to-be’s secret). Thankfully, due to some intervention by Donkey, Shrek comes to accept that he does love Fiona after all and saves her at the last minute from being wed to Farquad (who himself ends up as a dragon’s dinner in a particularly satisfying moment).

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In one final twist, the curse is broken, but instead of remaining human (as you might expect in a traditional fairy tale film), Fiona remains an ogre (which makes her absolutely beautiful in Shrek’s eyes) and they get married and ride off in an onion carriage (a parody of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage), but is it happily ever after? Shrek 2 might have something to say about that…

I remember going to see this movie in theaters and laughing hysterically for most of the story. The film does appear slightly dated fifteen years down the road (CGI has advanced by leaps and bounds since then) but it’s still a cute family film (that will hopefully be added to my collection someday).

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Star Trek: Into Darkness is a complete rip-off of Wrath of Khan

(prepare for a rant/tirade because I have some issues with this movie)

Oh the deja vu….like the first Star Trek film in the reboot era, I had high hopes for Into Darkness, especially once it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the villain. Everything looked great, the story details sounded good, the teaser was amazing, but then one little detail came to my attention: the name of Cumberbatch’s character was Khan.

Having seen every Star Trek film there is (and almost all of the TV series to boot), knowing the villain was named Khan meant only one thing: Into Darkness HAD to be a remake of Wrath of Khan (1984), the film which is considered by many to be the greatest in the series. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m sorry, it’s not a remake, it’s *clears throat” “How the events of Wrath of Khan MIGHT have occurred set in an alternate universe.” Which is a clever way of saying IT’S.A.REMAKE!!

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I MIGHT have been able to come to terms with this if the story had been really good, but it’s not. Every plot detail begs for a comparison with the original film, and for me, the original comes out on top. I’m not saying Cumberbatch did a bad job per se, but compared to Ricardo Montalban’s epic performance? Nope, it’s not even close.

The only twist that got my attention is that they flip-flopped who sacrificed themselves to save the ship, that was the one twist I found believable. Of course, Kirk being as devoted to his ship and crew as he is, would surely have done what Spock did in Wrath of Khan, given half the opportunity.

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The ending wasn’t half bad either. True, Khan is still alive at film’s end (which means he might pop up sometime in the future), and McCoy’s final line “Five years in space, God help me.” is pretty funny (and perfectly in character too), and yet, I don’t like it, I CAN’T like it. If you’re going to reboot a series, do what the James Bond writers did and keep coming up with original material, only set in a new context, don’t try to rehash the original films and use the “alternate universe” as an excuse.

For me, truly, Star Trek Beyond is the studio’s last chance to keep me as a fan of the new films. If this doesn’t blow me away, well, there’s always the original films to enjoy.

This concludes my rant. (I know I take a bit of a hard line when it comes to the remakes, it’s just that the original films are very special to me, and if you like the rebooted series, that’s ok! Promise!)

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Up first (in terms of dates): 14 years ago today, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, launched into theaters and (correct me if I’m wrong) is considered the weakest film in the prequel trilogy, largely due to the clunky, unnatural, and at times downright awkward “romantic” moments between a teenaged Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen) and an adult Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman).

I was happily oblivious to all of these flaws when I saw this movie in the theater (I was only thirteen at the time, what did I know about good or bad dialogue? I was just excited to see Star Wars in the movie theater). But now that I’m older, I (somewhat reluctantly) have to agree that this isn’t the best entry in the series (Hayden Christensen’s acting isn’t THAT bad though).

Episode II takes place about ten years after Episode I and the extremely Force-strong boy from Tatooine has grown up into an exceptionally moody Padawan, still mentored by the ever-exasperated Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). A state of civil war is brewing in the Republic, as the Separatist movement, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), threatens the peace. The Jedi are oblivious to the fact that Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is actually the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, and that he has been manipulating galactic events for years. Anakin has grown to view the chancellor as a trusted advisor, and is also struggling with his growing feelings for the now-Senator Amidala.

For all the movie’s flaws, how cool is it that Christopher Lee plays a former Jedi?? And how awesome is it that Yoda is revealed as a bad-ass fighter! (It’s CGI-ed to death but it’s still pretty cool I think).

The Clone Wars themselves are only mentioned twice in the original Star Wars film (Luke: “You fought in the Clone Wars?” and in the Leia recording: “…Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars…”) but we really knew nothing else about them. Now this movie was allegedly going to show us what the Clone Wars were all about, which excited many. Unfortunately, while there are some pretty impressive moments (the revelation that the clones are the predecessors of Storm troopers comes to mind, along with the impressive-as-always lightsaber battles), the story is really bogged down by way too much CGI, a weird as heck romance subplot, and a shade too much politics.

Musically though, the film is great. John Williams returned once again to score the film and I firmly believe his music made the film better than it might have been otherwise. One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the film (right before the scene showing Anakin and Padme getting married in secret): the Jedi are watching the clone troopers arrive on Coruscant and Yoda sternly reminds them all that the fight is far from over because “begun, the Clone Wars have” and then, you hear IT, a clear refrain of the Imperial March (aka “Darth Vader’s theme”). Williams only used a clear rendition of that theme once in The Phantom Menace (when Yoda tells Obi-Wan “grave danger do I fear in his training”), but Anakin’s “good” theme was otherwise built on a rendition of the March placed in a major key (the original is in minor). Now though, as the clone ships land (clearly an early version of Star Destroyers), the camera pans over the assembled troopers and a loud rendition of the Imperial March plays, and there is no mistaking it. The Jedi don’t know it yet, but the final seeds have been sown for their annihilation.

(Incidentally, if anyone was curious: Yoda trained Dooku, Dooku trained Qui-Gon, Qui-Gon trained Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan trained Anakin).

Have a good day!

*all images are the property of 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

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Star Trek (2009), my (mixed) thoughts on this alternate universe

On May 8th, 2009, the universe of Star Trek, as seen by J.J Abrams, came hurtling into theaters.

Oh where to begin with this movie, with this concept! I was initially thrilled that a new Star Trek movie was being made (Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) having been billed as the final adventure) and couldn’t wait to learn more. And then details began to come out, that this movie was going to be different, the “How they all met” story, as it were. But the previews didn’t look right to me, the story they were telling seemed off somehow. And then the movie came out and I learned why. This movie was set in a totally different universe. Effectively, the Star Trek universe that had been established since 1966…really didn’t exist anymore.

I.Was.FURIOUS.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bash the actors (they did a fine job) or the soundtrack (even though Goldsmith and Horner created much better sounds for their respective Star Trek films), it’s just, calling this an “alternate universe” is just a fancy way of saying they rebooted the series but they didn’t want it to look like one. A reboot is a reboot, and, maybe I’m in the minority but, Star Trek didn’t need one (in my opinion). I’m okay with a new cast of characters, but recasting the original crew does not sit right with me.

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The story is that in the original Star Trek universe, the planet Romulus is about to be destroyed by a huge supernova. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has come up with a last-ditch effort plan to save Romulus but the method is utilized too late to save the planet. In the aftermath of the explosion, a time vortex is created and both Spock and a Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) are flung back into time (due to the “red matter” that Spock had tried to use. Nero holds Spock personally responsible for the death of his family and vows to make the Vulcan suffer. How? Oh, simply by destroying the planet Vulcan, that’s all. (You know, Vulcan, the site of some of the most important events in the original series, it gets blown up.) In effect, the presence of Spock and Nero in the past creates an alternate universe because the course of events is being altered from what it should have been.

Despite my feelings, I really did try to like this movie, I really did (after all, it’s the only option for seeing Star Trek in theaters at the moment) and I just couldn’t get into it. I think the problem (for me) is, I grew up watching the original Star Trek movies and tv shows and that is the Star Trek I know and love. This Star Trek…it says most of the right things, but, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t feel quite right. To this day, I still can’t put my finger on the issue, but I’m hoping Star Trek: Beyond is different.

*poster is the property of Paramount Pictures

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See also:

Film/TV Reviews

Michael Giacchino talks Star Trek (2009)

Michael Giacchino talks Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a complete rip-off of Wrath of Khan

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My thoughts on: Gladiator (2000)

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Set in the year 180 AD, the film follows the saga of General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) as he is betrayed by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) after the latter murders his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (when he revealed to Commodus that he was going to restore the Republic). Maximus is sent to be executed when he discovers what Commodus has done but he manages to escape and races back home, only to discover that his wife and son have been brutally murdered, his home burned to the ground.

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Maximus is subsequently captured by slavers and becomes a gladiator in a backwater town of the Empire. Meanwhile, Commodus has returned to Rome and proceeds to enjoy life as an Emperor, giving the people an unending stream of “bread and circuses” so that no one notices that he’s really a terrible ruler.

Phoenix’s performance as the slowly-going-mad Emperor is really spine-chilling at times. He comes off as slightly buffoonish in the beginning, but once he really begins to go mad (I’m thinking of the scene where he threatens to kill his nephew unless his sister does whatever he wants), he’s quite terrifying.

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Of course Maximus inevitably makes his way to Rome as a gladiator, to fight in the great Colosseum. He vainly attempts to hide his identity (fearing that he’ll be killed on the spot if recognized), but the Emperor demands to know who he is, leading to one of the greatest movie lines of all time:

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

And vengeance he gets, though not without paying the ultimate price in return.

The score for this brilliant film was composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer. Some have noted that the music in many battle scenes bears a distinct resemblance to the music from “Mars: The Bringer of War” composed by Gustav Holst (so much so in fact that at one point the Holst Foundation sued Zimmer on the grounds that he had plagiarized Holst’s work). Also, Commodus’s triumphal entry into Rome contains music that seems to evoke two of Richard Wagner’s operas “The Rhine Gold” and “Twilight of the Gods.”

It’s been a while since I watched this movie, but it is indeed a modern classic that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

*poster is the property of DreamWorks Pictures

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A 21st-century Pygmalion in Ex Machina

This post is a part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Christina Wehner

The plot of the 2015 film Ex Machina is set in motion when Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week at the estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac, aka Poe Dameron), the inventor of Bluebook (the largest search engine in the world). I was originally going to place Nathan in the “mad scientist” category, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he really belongs in the “lonely” category (though he is crazy regardless).

 

As soon as you see Nathan, you know there is something…off… about him (his estate is set in the midst of hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness, for example). His personality is so blunt it borders on the abrasive, and his wit is razor sharp. He quickly reveals to Caleb that he has been working on something exciting: Artificial Intelligence. He isn’t just working on it, he’s already made one: Ava (Alicia Vikander), a gynoid with a human face and hands, but exposed metal mesh for limbs and a torso.

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Ava

Nathan, to put it bluntly, has a God complex. Everything in this house is ordered to his exact specifications. This is his empire, his word is absolute law (and once Caleb arrives he is subject to this law). Caleb mentions a line of “If you’ve created artificial intelligence, that’s not the work of a man, that’s the work of gods.” And Nathan happily turns this around and suggests that Caleb is calling him a god, when Caleb meant no such thing.

Nathan makes it seem like Ava is the first prototype, but Caleb eventually discovers that this is not true. There were at least FIVE predecessors to Ava (we see the names of Lily, Jade and Jasmine), and they were all female. Clearly, Nathan is attempting to build the “perfect” woman, and that is why I dub him a 21st-century Pygmalion.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who created a statue of a woman out of ivory. Over time, he fell in love with his creation and Aphrodite brought the statue to life so they could be together. Today, some scholars interpret this story as a very early example of artificial life, and therefore a precursor to robot stories.

So back to Nathan. He’s tried several times to create the “perfect” woman, just as Pygmalion did. This implies that deep down under all of his insane bravado, he is a very lonely man, maybe he feels that the only woman fit for him is one he creates. Only, unlike Galatea (who happily lived with her creator) none of these robots are meeting Nathan’s insanely high standards, not to mention they have all tried to escape (one even put cracks in a glass wall). (Based on his behavior, Nathan expects and wants a woman that is totally submissive to HIS needs, I think that’s why Kyoko (who is, spoiler alert, also a robot) cannot talk (Nathan says that she can’t understand English, but I believe that she can, she just can’t say anything). So thus far, as each one fails the tests, Nathan destroys that model, downloads the information, and tries again. He implies to Caleb that he’s about to do the same thing to Ava. But Nathan does not realize that introducing Caleb into the equation will lead to his permanent downfall. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you haven’t seen Ex Machina, I highly recommend getting a copy and checking it out.

On a side note, besides being a 21st-century Pygmalion, Nathan is also a modern-day Bluebeard. For those unfamiliar with the fairy tale, Bluebeard was a wealthy man who had married multiple times. His latest wife is given all of the keys to the house but is told to not enter the last room at the end of the hall. Eventually, curiosity wins out and the wife goes in…only to discover the dead bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives (Bluebeard’s secret is that he is a serial murderer). In Nathan’s bedroom, Caleb discovers a series of closets containing the broken down bodies of Ava’s predecessors a la Bluebeard. Nathan also tells Caleb that “not all of these rooms are for you.”

I hope you enjoyed this look at Nathan from Ex Machina 🙂

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Ex Machina “Ava”

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Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

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Like the Muppet’s Christmas Carol before it, Muppet Treasure Island tells the story of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver with the Muppet twist: Captain Smollet is Kermit the Frog; Fozzie Bear is Squire Trelawney Jr.; Mr. Arrow is Sam the Eagle (his character is a total opposite from the book version); the pirates are an assortment of Muppets; Silver has a pet lobster named Polly; Gonzo and Rizzo play Jim’s two friends and, oh yes, Miss Piggy plays BenjaminGunn, marooned on the titular Treasure Island by Captain Flint after Smollet left her waiting at the altar. The film was directed by Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, the late creator of the Muppets.

Aside from the original Muppet Movie, this was my favorite film to feature the Muppets growing up. The songs and music are funny and serve to keep the story moving along. The instrumental score was composed by Hans Zimmer (no wonder I love listening to it so much), with additional music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Zimmer certainly did not skimp on musical quality. The opening instrumental melody (before Billy Bones’ narration begins) is just splendid, with a driving horn theme that is reminiscent of sea songs and old films about the high seas.

My favorite songs by far are:

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“Shiver My Timbers” : This is the opening song set during the prologue where Billy Bones narrates how Captain Flint brought all of his treasure onto the island, and once it was buried, killed all of the pirates so that only he would know where the treasure was hidden (Billy Bones the first mate, stayed behind on the ship so his life was spared). I just love the men’s chorus as they sing this song, it’s driving, it’s good music.

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“Professional Pirate” : After kidnapping Jim and revealing himself as a pirate, Long John Silver (and company) sing of the virtues of being a pirate in an attempt to convince young Hawkins into joining them. Tim Curry’s great singing voice is put to good use here and this is a great musical number.

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“Boom Shakalaka” : It turns out that Treasure Island is also the home of a tribe of wild boars (led by Spa’ am, get it?) who have made Miss Piggy their Queen (but of course), and “Boom Shakalaka” is the song they sing to summon her big entrance on an Asian elephant (how an Asian elephant got onto a Caribbean island I shall never know). Boom-Shakalaka is also her name among the tribe.

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“Cabin Fever” : After the voyage to Treasure Island has begun, the Hispaniola is becalmed at sea for almost a week, and the bored-out-of-their-minds crew goes slightly nuts, performing a song and dance routine about how crazy they have all become. It’s pure Muppet hilarity (notably, Silver, Hawkins, Smollett and Arrow are all absent from this number).

Even if you’ve never seen a Muppet movie before, Muppet Treasure Island is a great place to start. At 20 years old, this movie has lost none of its charm.

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