Monthly Archives: December 2014

Films of 2014

So, before I begin this will be short as I haven’t seen nearly as many new movies this year as I’d like, but none-the-less here are my thoughts on things based on what I have seen.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Prison1As seems to something that’s going to continue well into the next decade Marvel took a big chunk of the blockbuster release schedule this year, but, unlike the last few years they actually lived up to the hype.

Following on from the sugary but ultimately unsatisfying confections of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, and the frankly rubbish Thor: The Dark World, Marvel studios stepped up their game in 2014 with the thriller-like Captain America: Winter Soldier that re-established some sense of intrigue in the ongoing Avengers storyline and the massively enjoyable and fun Guardians of the Galaxy that was one of the most enjoyable things I saw all year, whether new or not.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver

The X-Men also re-established themselves as a group of Marvel characters worth watching as Bryan Singer returned to the director’s chair for Days of Future Past which built on the great work Matthew Vaughan did in First Class to be a great action adventure and set up some exciting prospects for the future.

Sony’s other Marvel property, Spider-Man fared less well in the bland follow-up to the almost ironically named The Amazing Spider-Man.

WyldStyle and Batman

WyldStyle and Batman

Family films were broadly catered for from the usual places but for me the stand out was The Lego Movie.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy it was a massively entertaining ride with enough smart jokes to make it something far more than any pre-release talk could have suggested.

It also added another great take on Batman to the cinematic canon that looks set to get his own stand alone follow-up.

Interstellar - Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey

Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey

One of the most anticipated movies of the year was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I was very glad I had avoided most of the pre-release hype and bluster when I went to see it and enjoyed it hugely as it combined a sense of adventure with ideas and thoughts akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While it was divisive with audiences, for me it perfectly balanced the two kinds of sci-fi, with spectacle standing alongside science and including one of the best pieces of stand alone world building I’ve seen in a long time.

The Imitation GameSomething of a wild card entry for me was The Imitation Game as, while its subject (Alan Turing) was one that greatly interested me and it starred Benedict Cumberbatch, who is generally a great performer, it had something of the look of an Oscar-bait biopic come English costume drama to it.

Thankfully it avoided this and ended up being very entertaining while also tackling some serious issues and taking a look at an only recently revealed part of second world war history.

PrideIn the end though, my favourite film of the year has to go to Matthew Warchus’ Pride. With its story of gay rights campaigners in London supporting striking Welsh miners in the mid-80s it could have been a very worthy film, but, instead it took a huge load of exuberance and positivity, along with all the issues surrounding both sets of characters, and created the most all-round entertaining and engaging movie I saw all year.

At no point did it shy away from anything, but at the same time it didn’t preach or posture and, while it encouraged tears along with the laughter, Pride made for the best time I had in a cinema in 2014.

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Super Mario Bros

super mario bros posterSuper Mario Bros the movie is a strange thing; On the one hand its an utter mess that bears little relation to its source material and really doesn’t make much sense. On the other it’s a basically enjoyable romp packed with nostalgia for me as a player of the Mario Bros games and someone who grew up in the late 80s and 1990s – and it’s the first movie I remember seeing in Guernsey’s (then quite exciting) new cinema… don’t worry it’s not the first film I saw in the cinema.

The movie follows the titular, plumbing, brothers as they head into a parallel New York where dinosaurs haven’t died out and have evolved into surprisingly human looking creatures ruled over by Dennis Hopper’s President (not King) Koopa – although he is called King in the credits.

Koopa is planning on taking over the world by merging the two New Yorks with the unwilling help of Princess Daisy and her meteorite necklace, and well his plot ends there really.

Super Mario Bros - Koopa Square set

The Koopa Square set

Certainly the best thing about the movie is the production design, and, while it bears very little relation to the video game its supposedly based on it does look good – in a sub-Blade Runner, mid-90s sci-fi kind of way. This gives the whole thing a kind of dark, decaying tone that references Ridley Scott’s aforementioned sci-fi classic as well as the likes of Tim Burton’s Batman (production designer David L. Snyder had worked on Blade Runner and on PeeWee’s Big Adventure, with Tim Burton).

Where this production design falls down is that it is totally at odds with the family friendly adventure romp tone of much of the plot as the Mario Brothers race about the repetitive sets to a quirky soundtrack of cartoon-esque original music and ironically selected songs while a selection of sometimes fitting, but mostly out-of-place, vaguely reptilian creature effects.

Dennis Hopper as King Koopa

Dennis Hopper

The performances in the film are equally varied from Dennis Hopper seemingly have a great time hamming it up as Koopa (at least while the camera was rolling), albeit again with little relevance to the source character to Bob Hoskins apparently not even having a clue that the movie was based on a video game and very much going through the motions (but being Hoskins and incredibly talented, pulling it off anyway).

John Leguizamo comes across as the most invested lead, bringing a sense of fun where he can and, as much as possible, builds a reasonable relationship with Samantha Mathis’ Princess Daisy and being generally charismatic and quite funny.

Super Mario Bros - Yoshi

Yoshi

Another high point is Yoshi, a fully animatronic dinosaur who actually has more personality, and elicits more sympathy at one point, than a lot of the rest of the movie.

Coming away from Super Mario Bros I can only think that, if it had no relation to the video game, it could have been a slightly brainless but enjoyably family adventure romp – albeit with an odd mish-mash of design styles. What it ends up as being though is simply a mess that has something of the feel of if Troma had a budget and made something that was actually family friendly, though I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time on that first cinema visit and, I have certainly enjoyed films less than I did watching this tonight.

super mario bros movie - Bob Hoskins, Samantha Mathis and John Leguizamo

Bob Hoskins, Samantha Mathis and John Leguizamo

The version I watched tonight was the new Blu-ray edition and included is a 55 minute, newly made, documentary that sheds a lot of light onto the production troubles with interviews with most of the major players both on and of screen (for obvious reasons less of Hopper and Hopkins) and is a fascinating insight into how a film can go wrong, really from the beginning of production right up until now.

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BBC Introducing Guernsey: December 2014 – Review of the year, Of Empires and Robert J. Hunter

Of Empires at Vale Earth Fair 2014

Of Empires

Listen to the show here.

For this month’s BBC Introducing Guernsey radio show on BBC Radio Guernsey, the last of 2014, I combined a review of the last month’s live shows with a review of some highlights of the year, alongside news from Of Empires and Robert J. Hunter.

In the last month Of Empires were named by MTV Brand New as unsigned band for 2015, a prize won 12 months ago by Royal Blood and Robert J. Hunter released his debut single through Spectra Records which went to number 1 on the iTunes UK blues chart.

On top of that I looked back at Last of the Light Brigade making their return, Chaos’s Light to Dark night, The Risk’s Christmas show, SugarSlam’s comeback and more, and my brand new track of the month from the BBC Introducing Uploader came from Lord Vapour.

You can listen for the next four weeks through the BBC iPlayer by clicking here.

Tracklist

Here’s a new video of Robert J. Hunter doing an acoustic version of Demons:

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Frank

frank movie posterWhen coming to a movie on home release, following very good reviews and a Blu-ray front cover screaming hyperbole, it can be very hard to form a genuine response to it as expectation is set to a different level.

Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is certainly a film that falls into this category, but, for the most part, stands up to these summations.

Telling the story of a band making a record, heading to a music festival and the fallout there-of, the film is very loosely based on a true story (or at least starting from the same place as an almost true event) from the life of writer Jon Ronson and his time playing keyboard for musical character comedian Frank Sidebottom (aka Chris Sievey).

Beyond the keyboard player and the big fake head, however, I was left with the feeling that little was similar between real events and Frank so, rather than a semi-autobiographical tale, we have something that is, essentially, a love letter to the most independent of ‘indie’ music that often brought to mind the events surrounding The Brian Jonestown Massacre in documentary, Dig!

Frank - Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson

Gyllenhaal, Fassbender and Gleeson

We are led into the film by Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), the aforementioned keyboard player, and struggling songwriter. The film’s opening is something I think anyone with musical aspirations can relate to as a genuinely spot on portrait is painted of Jon trying to write songs while, in his view, trapped in suburbia and a dead-end job.

He soon bumps into the members of Frank’s (Michael Fassbender) band, the hilariously unpronounceable Soronprfbs, while their current keyboard player is trying to drown himself and, following a fairly disastrous gig, gets caught in the very slow-moving whirlwind of the band as they try to record a new album.

The film is somewhat episodic, but just about ties everything together enough so that this doesn’t become a problem and, as it goes on, our focus shifts somewhat to the titular Frank, and a mesmerising performance from Fassbender from under the big plastic head, around which the rest of the band circulate with varying levels of questioning and intimacy.

Michael Fassbender as Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank

A particular highlight of the rest of the band is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance of Clara and the semi-side story of her clash of personalities with Jon.

For a music lover (and aspiring player) the film has some fascinating moments and for any creative carries a great message that it never really hammers home but lets the viewer uncover, while treading the fine line between drama and comedy with aplomb.

The final section is very hard to talk about without revealing too much, but, as it builds, Frank (the film) becomes more eccentric, but at the same time even more gripping as it becomes something of a road movie.

Domhnall Gleeson as Jon in Frank

Domhnall Gleeson as Jon

Here is where I found something of a problem in that Jon, rather than being a character I wanted to keep following, became somewhat insufferable and I was caring more for Frank despite the movie’s best efforts in forcing me to spend time with Jon.

In the denouement though the greatness of Fassbender’s performance really does reveal itself and leaves things on a very satisfying note continuing the film’s obsession with perceptions in indie music, and in life in general.

In the end Frank is a movie packed with indie ‘quirks’, but, with a central performance like that of Fassbender, some interesting questions and topics and a great message, it avoids falling into generic quirky indie movie territory so, while I wouldn’t go so far as some other reviews, it is certainly highly enjoyable piece and, I think for fans of indie music and creative people in general, will have a lot to interest them.

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Gremlins

Gremlins posterFollowing on from Die Hard I thought I’d take a look at another ‘alternative’ Christmas movie of the 80s, still much regarded in certain circles, in Joe Dante’s 1984 festive horror comedy, Gremlins.

Telling the story of a small town over run by green-skinned, reptilian creatures from who knows where it is clear to see why people are so fond of it and, even coming to it with less of the sense of nostalgia many of my age have for the film, its hard not to be swept along for the ride, and a ride it really is.

After a scene setting pre-amble we are dropped into the typical American mid-west small town of Kingston Falls. Here we meet young bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and over the course of a few scenes it becomes clear that the picket fences of Kingston Falls maybe aren’t as white as everyone would like to believe, so to speak.

Billy is then introduced to Gizmo, a new pet and from there the ride really kicks into upper gear.

Zach Galligan and Gizmo - Gremlins

Zach Galligan and Gizmo

These intro scenes are deftly handled with a knowing nature that hints at what is to come and, while the feel and tone may be a little dated, it works in context of the movie. Galligan, in particular, stands out as the much put upon young man doing his best to live his dream, despite the best efforts of those around him from the Cruella De Ville like Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) to his over achieving contemporaries like Gerald (Judge Reinhold).

It is when Gizmo’s malevolent offspring trick Billy into feeding them after midnight that things really get going though and the real stars of the film are revealed.

The titular Gremlins are an astonishing creation of puppetry that brings to mind Jim Henson’s Muppets-gone-bad and are the work of Chris Walas.

Stripe and Gizmo - Gremlins

Stripe and Gizmo

What is most impressive is the performances delivered between the puppets and the human actors, particularly Gizmo, but also lead Gremlin, Stripe, and a few of the others and, while the creatures aren’t exactly fully rounded characters, at their best they are entirely convincing, particularly when they are at their threatening best attacking Billy’s mother, neighbours (the Futtermans) and Billy himself.

It’s these scenes that give the film its real edge too as, while some of it feels like a perfectly family friendly affair, there is a surprisingly horrific (if not hugely gore-y) nature that gives the Gremlins a genuinely nasty edge – despite their entertainingly theatrical fancy dress leanings particularly seen as they invade the local Irish pub and cinema.

Gremlins

Gremlins in the pub

This horror edge is also present from the humans, particularly when Mrs Peltzer deals with a couple of the creatures in her kitchen using a food mixer and microwave.

It seems this mix of comedy and horror caused the film some problems with certification as, at least the American MPAA, had trouble giving Gremlins a reasonable certificate that would please everyone involved and is one of the films that led to their certification overhaul of the mid-1980s.

While the aesthetic of Gremlins may have dated a bit in the 30 years since its first release, its clever mix of humour and horror combined with the script’s sense of knowing fun and the still highly impressive Gremlins themselves means it remains an enjoyable ride of a movie. If you don’t want the more modern family friendly, and above saccharine, versions of the Christmas movie, there are few better places to look than Gremlins.

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Die Hard (at Beau Cinema)

Die Hard posterThe number of words written about John McTiernan’s Die Hard since its release in 1988 is likely innumerable, so I’ll add my two-pence as I have just been to a special Christmas screening of the movie at Guernsey’s Beau Cinema.

To many the notion of a Christmas screening of this potentially one-dimensional boys’ own action movie might seem odd, however, its entire plot hinges on the device of coming home for Christmas. Our hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis) of the NYPD, is heading to Los Angeles to attempt some kind of reconciliation with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and see their two children for the holidays.

Of course all doesn’t to plan as McClane becomes caught in the middle of a heist orchestrated by potential terrorist, certainly brilliantly accented, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) which leads, fairly inevitably, to a lot of shooting, some impressive explosions and a (mostly) heartwarming ending.

While this all sounds like a thousand other movies, what makes Die Hard work so well is a few things, but, primarily, it is that is the alpha point of this kind of ‘high concept’ action thriller.

Bruce Willis as John McClane - Die Hard

Bruce Willis as John McClane

While the likes of The Towering Inferno can be seen in the DNA of Die Hard, the genre that sees a sole ‘every day’ hero put into an extraordinary action situation can be traced back here. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren, et al, who were the other action heroes of the time, Willis is a surprisingly believable, and essentially non-superhuman, character here (fresh of a stint on TV sitcom Moonlighting) and comes with little of the irony necessary to enjoy those other action stars work.

This lack of irony is accompanied some great ‘straight’ performances from the leads. Willis is the hero in every sense of the cliché, fighting for both his marriage and to save the lives of as many of the hostages as possible, while Rickman delivers an astonishing performance that could easily fall into self-parody (and has been much parodied) but in context remains genuinely excellent treading a line of suaveness and threat that James Bond has rarely matched.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber

The tension, of which there is much, is tempered by the antics of the LAPD and FBI outside the Nakatomi Plaza which could almost work as a satire of an ineffectual ‘machine’, but I’d never suggest it really goes as far as to genuinely make a point. Within this comes another of the great performance from Reginald VelJohnson as Al Powell, the first cop on the scene who bonds with McClane over their radios.

The other thing that stands out is that, as well as the actors; the major players in the crew are at their best too. Die Hard is, arguably, director McTiernan’s best film and he is ably assisted by Jan DeBont (who went on to direct Speed aka Die Hard On A Bus) as director of photography that leads to some genuinely well constructed moments of cinema, something often lacking in action movies, and increasingly lost in the world of robots/superheroes throwing each other through buildings we live in now. The moment here when Gruber and co finally achieve what seems to be their main goal remains majestic in use of shots, music and performance.

Nakatomi Plaza explosion - Die HardWhile what has come after in the series has become increasingly ridiculous, and reached a genuinely awful low in the painfully convoluted A Good Day To Die Hard, none of this can detract from the sheer exuberance, excitement and enjoyment that can be found here.

Seeing the film in a cinema for the first time, particularly the state of the art HD system of Beau Cinema, also added to the experience with the helicopters and air conditioning systems reaching almost deafening levels of bass that really built the atmosphere.

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The Risk, Citizen-X and Blue Mountains – The Fermain Tavern – 19/12/14

The Risk

The Risk

With Christmas party season continuing in earnest on the Friday before the big day, Guernsey’s mod rock heroes The Risk staged one of their own at The Fermain Tavern celebrating, not only the season, but 30 years together as a band, the release of the Millions Like Us box-set (on which they feature along with more than 100 other mod revival bands) and guitarist Colin Leach’s birthday.

Before they took to the stage we were treated to two eclectic support acts made up of people who have played with the band in one form or another in the past, and first up was folk duo Blue Mountains.

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

Featuring Coleen Irven (who once shared a stage with Mark Le Gallez and Colin in The Sacred Hearts) along with Mike Bonsall, the duo kept things simple tonight with the whole set being based around an acoustic guitar and vocals, save for an opening, and impressively delivered, a cappella number.

This was the most relaxed I have seen Blue Mountains on stage and that seemed to lead to the most soulful delivery I have heard from them as they journeyed through a selection of typically bleak but toe-tapping folk, bluegrass and Appalachian songs and ‘murder ballads’ highlighted by renditions of Henry Lee and Little Sadie.

From vintage folk we took a step into a potential future with Guernsey’s own musical iPad warrior, Citizen-X – whose previous band had supported The Risk in their early days.

Citizen-X

Citizen-X

Performing live on just the aforementioned tablet device can lead to a situation where there isn’t a lot to catch the eye about the good Citizen’s sets, but tonight he took the opportunity of a projector being set up to add a visual edge to things with some videos made to synchronise with the sounds.

Citizen-X’s music combines soundscapes with low-key beats to create atmospheres, which is certainly different to pretty much anything else on offer over here at the moment, and it was clear, was totally alien to many in attendance. None-the-less the tracks seemed to go down well and were generally greeted with appreciative applause.

High points in the set came with the tracks that best mixed the visual side with the music in the form of Stormborn, Apollo, Spock and a track inspired by Jacques Cousteau and, while the set felt a little long in the context of this gig, Citizen-X is clearly developing something of his own that contains some great sounds.

The Risk

The Risk

It was clear as The Risk took to the stage that they were who everyone was really here to see as the entirety of the sadly small crowd made their way onto the dancefloor as the band opened up with psyche epic Twilight Zone, played in full with extra added vocal samples for good measure.

From there the band took us through the gamut of their 30 years with songs from their mid-80s heyday rubbing shoulders with new numbers, as yet unrecorded, all of which came with the same spirit that drew Mark and Colin together when they were first starting out.

Mark Le Gallez of The Risk

Mark Le Gallez

The set was divided in two, starting out with the power-trio line up of the band, completed by Stuart ‘Ozzy’ Austin on the drums, before they were joined by Andy Coleman and Garrick Jones adding their brass to proceedings and bringing a hint of soul to the mod.

Mid-way through the set the band’s energy and performance did seem to dip for a couple of songs, but this didn’t last long and the crowd didn’t really seem to care and with Work and Good Together The Risk were really flying again until they rounded off with State Of The Union and Good Times.

They weren’t gone for long though as Mark, Colin and Ozzy returned with rock ‘n’ roller Closing Time which had the crowd bouncing before the whole line up was back for the obligatory closer of their modded take on Born To Be Wild (“Get your scooter running…”) which left the audience still calling for more as DJ SilverVespa gave the Tav something of a Northern Soul club vibe with his choice of tunes.

Colin Leach of The Risk

Colin Leach

With 30 years under their belts it didn’t seem as if The Risk had missed a step as, across 17 songs, they did exactly what you’d expect from a mod-revival band and provided a high energy way to spend a Friday night and, while we may not get to see them as often as we’d like, it makes shows like this all the more special.

See a full gallery of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Facebook page and find out more about the band’s history in my feature from 2010 for BBC Guernsey.

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SOPM Christmas Hootenanny – The Fermain Tavern – 13/12/14

Last of the Light Brigade

Last of the Light Brigade

To round off their first full calendar year Guernsey’s School of Popular Music put on a show at The Fermain Tavern featuring a mix of bands and performers associated with, and just enjoyed by, the school.

As well as featuring the much-anticipated return to the stage of indie rockers Last Of The Light Brigade with new bass player Kyle Torode, the gig included Lydia Pugh, Thee Jenerators, The Secret Smiles and Subversion.

You can see a full gallery of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page and my review was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 20th December 2014.

SOPM Christmas Gig review scan - 20:12:14

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SugarSlam and The Crowman – De La Rue – 12/12/14

The Crowman, Mark Le Gallez, and Plumb of SugarSlam

The Crowman (Mark Le Gallez) and Plumb of SugarSlam

After the Chaos Christmas Party gig the weekend before SugarSlam continued the 2014 series of musical festive bashes as they took to the stage at the De La Rue in St Peter Port with support coming from The Crowman.

As well as the music the night saw Christmas crackers dished out to the assembled throng and, with tinsel and decorations adorning Brett Stewart’s drums, the holiday mood was set.

You can see a full gallery of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page and my review was published in the Guernsey Press on Saturday 20th December 2014:

SugarSlam and The Crowman review scan - 20:12:14

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Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For

Sin-City-A-Dame-to-Kill-For-teaser-posterThe best part of a decade ago Robert Rodriquez and Frank Miller joined forces to bring Miller’s comic-noir vision, Sin City, to life. They did so using, then groundbreaking, special effect techniques and a huge cast of A-listers which made for something fresh and exciting.

Nine years later they reunited to bring another set of Miller’s stories to the big screen with a similar set of special effects and a similar cast, but unfortunately something seems to be missing.

While Sin City is a noir fever dream of almost-superheroes and almost-supervillians set in the hyper-stylised Basin City, A Dame To Kill For feels, for the most part, like they’ve taken that dream and turned it into some hellish nightmare version of the same source.

While the violence and general dubious gender politics exist in both films there is much more in the second that feels genuinely nasty. While in the first, the evil Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) was a shadowy background figure, here he is the overarching villain for two of the three threads and is one of the most charismatic characters in the movie.

Powers Boothe as Senator Roark

Powers Boothe as Senator Roark

This sets the balance between the good guys and bad guys on the wrong side from the start and isn’t helped by the fact that the new good guys don’t really have the necessary motive they did in the first film to really make us root for them.

The titular story is the most coherent with Eva Green standing out as Ava Lord, chewing through the virtually scenery and clearly having a lot of fun hamming up her extreme femme fatale in fine style.

In contrast her beau, Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a chronologically earlier incarnation of the character played by Clive Owen in the first film, is unfortunately bland, much like McCarthy was compared to Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the first movie and he isn’t enough of a hero to carry the plot.

Eva Green as Ava Lord

Eva Green as Ava Lord

That said, neither are Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s underdeveloped Johnny or Jessica Alba’s damaged Nancy.

Crucially, what seems to be missing is a sense of experimental innocence and a joie de vivre that made the first movie barrel along but now feels like Rodriquez going through the motions of this being the sort of thing he does, particularly following the hyper-silliness of the Machete movies. While he has become very slick at this, Rodriquez’s style has lost something that made the original, and much of his earlier work, much more enjoyable.

On top of this it seems Frank Miller is trying to rekindle what it was that made the original run of the comics such great stories. He too though seems to have lost this view of Sin City, making the new stories feel like pastiches of his past work that try too hard to be brutal noir and just end up a bit too bland and a bit too nasty.

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