Talking Movies

April 26, 2018

From the Archives: The Accidental Husband

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers a drab rom-com starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan before Watchmen and Negan!

The Accidental Husband is the sort of drab film that inspires long involved tangents in your own mind as you try to ignore the boring predictability of the on-screen action. Uma Thurman is Dr Emma Lloyd, a relationship expert with her own phone-in radio show and whose first book of dating advice is being launched by the publishing house of her fiancé Richard (Colin Firth). However when she advises one of her listeners to break up with her fiancé, the duly jilted fireman Patrick Sullivan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sets about taking the ‘love doctor’ down a peg. One ingenious hack into the NYC municipal database later and Emma and Patrick are man and wife, as she finds to her horror when she arrives at city offices with Richard to sign their forms. Her futile efforts to get Patrick to annul their non-existent marriage inevitably see her start to question her relationship with her dull, dependable fiancé whose worst vice (and only funny characteristic) is his comfort eating when stressed.

The Accidental Husband is above all other objections just painfully predictable. Will Emma throw away a lifetime of habits and, ignoring the advice she dispenses every day, choose the risky option? What do you think?! The painful whirring of the plot mechanics aren’t drowned out by laughter as Uma Thurman simply cannot do comedy. She produced and starred in this to prove to herself that she can, but even her role as a DJ invokes memories of The Truth about Cats & Dogs – which worked because she was not the lead but was supporting Janeane Garofalo. This film is Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution that Uma murders romantic comedies with her stiff, awkward approach which has to resort to slapstick to engage our sympathies.

Lindsay Sloane as Emma’s PA (and sole friend) Marcy takes what good lines there are, as is customary in romantic comedies where second-string is always the better role, and Colin Firth is sadly underused. Jeffrey Dean Morgan meanwhile is rugged. Apparently that’s what the ladies like these days and at the age of 41, courtesy of his celebrated role in Grey’s Anatomy, he is now a bona fide heart-throb. Morgan also appeared as the charismatic father in TV horror series Supernatural so it’s little surprise that he’s rather good here as the roguish NYC fire-fighter whose heart is in the right place.

But this film has very little heart. Emma likes to remind her listeners endlessly that 43% of American marriages end in divorce. That spectre of futility hangs over the film as she spouts invective about the stupidity of expecting lasting happiness in the modern world. The Accidental Husband systematically deconstructs the concepts which support the romantic comedy genre even as it performs them making for a quite singularly depressing experience.

2/5

September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

March 28, 2014

The Baz Aesthetic

I’ve considered myself a fan of Baz Luhrmann for a long time, but after Australia and The Great Gatsby, I’ve become sceptical that the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy was really a deliberate trilogy – I think all of his films reveal the Baz Aesthetic; and it’s being imposed on increasingly unsuitable material.

THE GREAT GATSBY

Deleted scenes are often the most revealing features on DVDs. Baz Luhrmann deleted the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Jordan and Nick’s romance ends. He shot it as Nick taking the phone away from his ear, and hanging up on Jordan. Because in the book it says Jordan’s voice faded away and then they weren’t talking anymore. I always thought that Nick spaced out thinking about Gatsby’s fate and Jordan hung up on him, because that seems far more in character – but Baz went with what is a very literal interpretation. It transpires Luhrmann also cut Gatsby’s famous line “Her voice is full of money”, because it complicated a scene – but only because Luhrmann had put the line in a different scene to begin with… So this is an adaptation in which the text is taken literally, but all the meaning and nuance lost – not unlike Zack Synder’s worst missteps with his Watchmen.

But it is also an adaptation in which Luhrmann’s particular aesthetic is mercilessly imposed upon a text for which it is radically unsuitable. Why does Nick Carraway suddenly want to be a writer? Duh, so that the film can be framed, like Moulin Rouge!, with him depressed, and then, by writing his story, redeemed by art at the end with his completed manuscript representing his salvaged personality. But … what was wrong with F Scott’s original novel that it needed to be Moulin Rouge!’d? Nothing, that’s just the Baz Aesthetic… How else could one justify transforming the small smoke-filled restaurant that Gatsby and Nick dine with Wolfsheim in into a raucous Jay-Z booming speakeasy with black strippers twerking onstage? How else could one explain turning the grand piano in Gatsby’s mansion into an organ that would look outsize in the Albert Hall? How else could one excuse ditching the actual glorious popular music of the 1920s for terrible anachronistic Jay-Z drivel, and replacing the fiendishly complicated dance moves of the Charleston (which are quite the spectacle when choreographed en masse) with pathetic ‘raise your hands in the air’ hip-hop stylings? How else could one make sense of using so much unnecessary CGI that you feel like Avatar had more of a sense of physical reality, and of deliberately ditching the iconic flapper look of the 1920s for more cleavage because ‘sexiness’ is all that matters?

The Baz Aesthetic is excess – everything has to be excess. And that’s fine as an aesthetic; when it synchs with the material, but here it doesn’t. Gatsby gleefully tosses his shirts down a floor to Daisy leading to her tears over the shirts, and Nick adds a helpful line to tell the audience her line about the shirts is stupid – but in the novel Gatsby is distractedly tossing shirts about because he’s in a trance, and Daisy cries because she can’t articulate what she feels and she says a stupid line knowing it’s a stupid line. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or nuance, and that’s not a problem for Moulin Rouge! But if you’re going to shoehorn every property into the template of Moulin Rouge! then that is a problem.

June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

Zack Snyder reboots Superman as total fantasy, throwing an immense amount of sound and CGI fury at us, but succeeding only in obscuring his characters.man_of_steel_24

Jor-El (Russell Crowe), chief scientist of Krypton, commits heresy by the natural birth of his son Kal-El; as for centuries Kryptonians have been artificially bred for specific duties. But this regimented society is about to literally implode from its own hubris, despite a last-gasp coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) to protect the race from the folly of their ruling council. All hope for Krypton’s future is dispatched by Jor-El, encoded in the cells of his son, to a distant planet once scouted for colonisation – Earth. Kal is raised as Clark by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who counsel him to keep his powers secret. Clark works menial jobs and secretly saves people. But when he hears of an anomalous object found by the military in the Arctic he drifts north, where his powers are observed by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Her story is rubbished by her editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but soon all earth believes it because Zod has come, and he wants Kal-El…

Man of Steel makes you appreciate Superman Returns. Singer’s visual style often mistook ponderous for majestic, but Snyder fails to fashion an action sequence to match its airplane crash as his crash-zooms and shakycam render everything an incomprehensible haze of action. The much-touted Battle of Smallville is a blur of CGI explosions, the Superman flying effects are less convincing than Donner’s owing to constant whip-panning, and Metropolis’s destruction by a gravity machine (which sounds like a nifty bass line) doesn’t match Bay’s trashing of Chicago skyscrapers in Transformers 3. Snyder was measured in Watchmen, so this is retrograde for him, but perhaps it’s his directorial response to David S Goyer writing Superman as total fantasy unhooked from any reality. Krypton is a CGI nightmare filled with fantastical creatures out of the Star Wars prequels, and bears little resemblance to previous imaginings. The film abruptly jumps from the destruction of Krypton to grown-up Clark saving an oil rig, perhaps to anticipate audience annoyance at being told this origin story yet again.

But we are told it, in momentum-killing flashbacks which clumsily rehash Batman Begins, although Costner shines in them as the voice of Kansan decency; with one truly stunning scene. Goyer’s script too often sketches personalities. Luckily Cavill, once he dons the suit, transforms vocally and becomes a rather good Superman, and Adams is a fantastic Lois. Finally cinematically we have a reporter capable of discovering who Superman is by dogged investigating! Shannon injects some complexity into Zod, but the script raises notions of Spartan destiny and Christian choice and then does nothing with them. Commander Faora (Antje Traue)’s chilling line about a lack of morality being an evolutionary advantage is a typical example of undeveloped potential. Goyer’s contrivance to weaken Superman without introducing Kryptonite is so mind-blowingly inconsistent that you’ll become unengaged enough to notice Adams acts beside a fellow Smallville alumnus, and that Law & Order and West Wing stars save the world. Incredibly Goyer’s finale has two horrendous wrong notes, and these are huge clangers akin to Batman tossing Joker off a building and then giggling when he goes splat on the sidewalk…

Man of Steel largely eschews comedy and realistically choreographed action, but aggravatingly some of its characterisation is quite brilliant. Okay attempt, Zack… Who’s next?

2.5/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

December 14, 2009

On Not Watching the Watchmen

Zack Snyder directing Alan Moore’s Watchmen raises the intriguing question – can a right-wing director successfully helm the work of a left-wing writer? Moore doesn’t seem to think so, but then Watchmen is very unrepresentative of his work, perhaps he resents its veneration because it’s the closest he’s come to Frank Miller’s shtick. The quintessential Moore is really the impossibly clever allusive universe and absurdist comedy of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Greg Garrett noted that Moore’s Batman in The Killing Joke was more interested in rehabilitating criminals than any before or since and that the Joker was given a more sympathetic portrayal; hence Moore’s writing is distinctly left-wing, especially when one considers his nemesis Miller’s splenetic fury at that work: “I disagree with everything Moore did in that book….My Joker was more evil than troubled; Alan’s was more troubled than evil”. Watchmen’s author is a left wing lunatic (read some interviews with Moore – full of the right spirit, but barking), so it’s deluded to think it could be done justice by a man who produced a completely faithful adaptation of 300. Snyder’s film works wonderfully, as a comedy, so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast. The DVD extras confirm Snyder is a right-wing lunatic, because he in all seriousness put it together as a straight down the line action about freedom, not preposterous nonsense – a sort of musical comedy without music. Moore refused to be drawn on Snyder’s approach to Watchmen, pithily dismissing 300: “I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase rather than reduce them: it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid”. Moore you see detests Miller for being a right-wing lunatic. Miller doesn’t do rehabilitation of criminals, or shades of grey, and as his career has progressed his obsession with whorish females and stylised violence has become ever more repetitive, distasteful and shallow, even as Moore’s work has become more playful, intelligent and optimistic. Miller and Snyder mesh in a way that Moore and Snyder patently do not, it is a question of worldview.

Rorschach was meant as a parody of Steve Ditko’s ridiculous early 1970s comics character Mr A, a vigilante who saw the world in strict black and white morality and delivered savage beatings to anyone who strayed. Moore was parodying this insane Manicheanism. An insistence on dividing the world into good or evil, not only denies political reality and the existence of ethical dilemmas it is also (as Ditko soon found out from falling sales) largely devoid of any artistic interest. Moore was not endorsing Mr A/Rorschach’s politics but if Snyder directed 300, which may in time be come to seen as the ultimate cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of the Bush zeitgeist, does he not believe in exactly what Moore mocked? Moore gave Rorschach peculiarly phrased dialogue, an aural equivalent would be rather high-pitched – hysterical and psychotic. Synder’s Rorschach growls like Batman, which renders him heroic rather than damaged. Does Snyder regard Rorschach’s interior monologue then not as reprehensible but merely colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview? Even Ditko when asked about Rorschach replied “Oh yes, he’s like Mr A, but insane”. Perhaps Snyder failed to realise that Nite Owl 2 is obviously Batman…

Moore’s comic is violent but the presentation downplays panels of violence in favour of panels of characters talking to each other indoors. Not exactly blockbuster visuals, so Synder amps up the violence. This elides Moore’s satirical point about the comic medium’s need for violent spectacle, which is even more pertinent to blockbusters. Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre’s rescue of people from a fire is intentionally seriously lame, making the sex afterwards even more pointedly pathetic and indicative of some heavy-duty psychosis on Nite Owl’s part. Why then film it with slow-mo heroic firestorms and Hallelujah scored sex? One could argue that Synder has only one style of directing – slow-mo ultra-violence – but when a co-writer/director hits so many wrong notes by applying a ‘previously winning formula’ it points more towards the politics of adaptation: it is possible to be faithful in replicating exact panels of a comic-book but miss the point, it’s called not getting irony.

But why deliberately not watch Watchmen? Here’s why:

CASEY: Snyder’s Watchmen will be rubbish.
LIBERAL: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t criticise it.
(Casey goes to cinema, resumes argument with Liberal)
CASEY: Fine I’ve seen it now and it is witless trash, but then I already knew that. Why the hell does Hollywood keep producing such dross?
(Enter a Hollywood producer)
DELANEY: We only make movies like Watchmen because they’re profitable. If people stopped going to them we wouldn’t make more. You’ve paid to see two of Snyder’s films now so blame yourself for his next one getting financed.
CASEY: Hang on a minute, so I can’t criticise the film without seeing it, but if I see it I just guarantee more of the same. (beat, turns to Liberal) Are you two working together?
LIBERAL: I have no comment on the matter…

And so I will have no part in encouraging Snyder.

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