Monday, 4 July 2022

Movie Review: 21 Bridges (2019)

A crime thriller, 21 Bridges is a relatively routine action flick enhanced by a good cast and slick production values.

In Brooklyn, hardened criminal Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch) and his more circumspect accomplice Michael Trujillo (Stephan James) stumble into a large haul of pure cocaine stashed in the basement of a bar. Police officers unexpectedly interrupt the robbery, and in the ensuing shootout Ray kills seven officers. Police Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) is furious at the loss of life in his precinct, while Ray and Michael flee with the drugs into Manhattan. 

Detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) and narcotics agent Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) are assigned to the case. Andre is the son of a slain police officer and has a trigger-happy reputation. He now orders all the bridges connecting Manhattan to the outside world closed and floods the borough with police officers. Meanwhile Ray and Michael are desperate to convert their cocaine haul into cash, and connect with money launderer Adi (Alexander Siddig). As Andre closes in on the fugitives, he starts to sense a large-scale corruption conspiracy.

The 21 bridges of the title are little more than an extraneous headline. This is a standard hunt-the-dangerous-bandits plot featuring good guys and bad guys, with a few shades of grey and hidden agendas thrown in to spice up motivations. The action takes place over one long night, the imperative of reopening the bridges by dawn for the city to function creating the time-constrained framework.

Director Brian Kirk has a robust cast to animate the running and gunning. Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller and J.K. Simmons never need to move out of their comfortable gears, but add plenty of quality. The criminals are also provided with welcome texture. Taylor Kitsch as the highly strung but still methodical killer is well-matched by Stephan James as his more hesitant accomplice, and their contrasting dynamic opens intriguing avenues for Boseman's detective to exploit.

Cinematographer Paul Cameron makes good use of the nighttime aesthetic, and as one breathless chase follows another, Tim Murrell's editing finds balance between frantic and coherent. The opening shootout is an exhilarating demonstration of advantages afforded by weaponry and military training, while a couple of guns-drawn showdowns between Michael and Andre allow intellect to compete with instinct.

What starts as a robbery-gone-bad morphs into something much more nefarious, and as the night turns to dawn the dead body count rivals the bridge count. If nothing else, 21 Bridges is always happy to run up the score.

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Movie Review: Juggernaut (1974)

A terrorism crime thriller, Juggernaut contains standard diffuse-the-bomb drama but little else.

With Captain Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif) at the helm and 1,200 passengers and crew on-board, the ocean liner SS Britannic sets sail into the North Atlantic. As the vessel encounters rough seas, a terrorist calling himself Juggernaut informs the ship's owner Nicholas Porter (Ian Holm) that seven sophisticated barrel bombs are on-board. He demands £500,000 within hours in return for information on how to deactivate the devices.

Porter is pressured by British government types to not pay, while a Navy bomb disposal team led by Lieutenant Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) is airlifted onto the Britannic. Fallon and his men start the dangerous work of attempting to deactivate the bombs, while Superintendent John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) of the London police, whose wife and children are on the ship, races to uncover Juggernaut's identity.

A British production directed by Richard Lester, Juggernaut is ambitious but unsophisticated. Even allowing for some wacky plot points - such as refusing to consider a passenger evacuation in rough seas (because vessels are only evacuated in calm waters?) - the script by Richard Alan Simmons and Alan Plater is several drafts away from generating genuine thrills. The fault lies in too much emphasis on barrels and not nearly enough attention allocated to people. 

The list of passengers who are supposed to matter is exceptionally short. McLeod's wife (Caroline Mortimer) spends her time rolling her eyes at two unruly kids; a US politician-type (Clifton James) has a couple of gruff what's-going-on-here lines; and Shirley Knight floats around as a barely defined Captain's mistress. Meanwhile the ship's director of entertainment Curtain (Roy Kinnear) is the irritating clown-in-residence and the most prominent character (this is a bad thing). Whether any of them lives or dies is of no consequence, and an increasingly uneasy sense that maybe the entire premise is intended as a shaky satire starts to creep in. 

Back on shore, the investigative elements are also short-changed, Anthony Hopkins caught is his own sea of grey suits pursuing an uninteresting villain.

Richard Harris as bomb expert Anthony Fallon does his usual heavy-drinking I'm the best but dammit all to hell schtick, his audience consisting of a flummoxed Omar Sharif who never appears sure what he is supposed to be doing. Lester finally abandons most human context and focusses ever more tightly on the hardware, mass of wires, and trigger devices within the barrel bombs. The red wire or the blue wire, that is the question.

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Friday, 1 July 2022

Movie Review: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

A melancholy western, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford traces events leading to the death of the famous outlaw. 

In Missouri of 1881, 19-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) sidles up to the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Jesse is all of 34 years old but already a legend, celebrated in local comics as a Robin Hood-type southern hero standing up to the unionists. But now the decimated James gang is reduced to seeking help from any local bandits, opening the door for Robert and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell).

Other hangers-on and wannabes include scuzzy relatives and friends like Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Battling insomnia and internal demons, Jesse is in a state of constant agitation and finds it difficult to trust anyone. But he is revered by Robert, who is equal parts star-struck and ambitious beyond his talents. As jealousies and tensions tear the gang apart, Jesse's options narrow, and Robert ponders his next move.

In addition to the long-winded title only marginally summarizing 160 minutes of cinema into 10 words, the adaptation of Ron Hansen's 1983 historical novel suffers from a few other problems. This is a story of outlaws plotting against outlaws, thieves and murderers turning against each other and settling scores in slow motion. Allies and enemies are one and the same, and in each other's company they either sleep lightly, or not at all. With none of the characters deserving of sympathy, the plot is an emotional slog until everyone meets their deserved comeuppance. 

The pacing is slow, the dialogue exchanges are perforated by ponderous gaps, and the overall mood is of grave predeterminism, the characters seemingly aware of the outcome having no doubt read the full title. Women are essentially non-existent in this story. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel show up on the margins, but have no more than ten words to say. Important characters like Frank James just drop out without explanation. And despite the mammoth length, writer and director Andrew Dominik still resorts to wordy narration, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the on-screen material.

But some strong positives do maintain interest. Roger Deakins' cinematography is often spellbinding, and the music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) adds soulful possibilities. Dominik's prose, once finally articulated between the pregnant pauses, is often achingly lyrical. And despite the epic scope, ultimately the drama distills to an intimate psychological showdown between two men. 

The study of hero-worship is superb, Robert Ford a restless kid entranced by Jesse James and dreaming of achieving similar exploits - maybe by replacing his hero. The dynamic between the two men is often electric, Dominik teasing out the danger of lies and the importance of reading silence and observing body language. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck deliver engrossing performances full of restless agitation, bringing to life two men testing confidence limits as they toy with death.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is frustratingly overblown and self-aggrandizing. It is also absorbing, visually captivating, and brilliantly well-acted.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Movie Review: Gosford Park (2001)

A comedy of manners combined with a frivolous mystery, Gosford Park is overstuffed with ill-defined characters floundering for a purpose.

In rural England of 1932, the high-society family and friends of the wealthy William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) gather at an estate for a pheasant shoot. The attendees include Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). The house is run by the butler Jennings (Alan Bates) and housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), overseeing a large group of servants including housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson).

Many of the attendees have reasons to dislike each other, and William is threatening to cut-off the income of several family members with stressed finances. His targets include Lady Sylvia's aunt Constance (Maggie Smith), who is accompanied by her bright but inexperienced maid Mary (Kelly Macdonald). Other servants in attendance include valets Robert Parks (Clive Owen) and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe). Midway through the gathering a murder is committed, and Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) gets involved.

Directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park is intended as an observational exercise focusing on the upstairs/downstairs social structure of England between the wars. With dialogue consisting of nothing but gossip, inane small talk, and snippets of conversations, the film drifts without power then starts to sink under the weight of about 28 characters vying for space. With incoherent introductions buried under a torrent of names and titles, it's impossible to map out who is who. Unsurprisingly, all the characters remain essentially undefined or at best caricatures.

On the margins, talk emerges of a dark past involving illegitimate children and an orphanage, and a murder occurs. But Fellowes and Altman don't really care about the mystery elements: the crime generates about as much concern as one of the pheasants shot out of the sky. The subsequent investigation is dismissive, Inspector Thompson walking in from an Agatha Christie novel than walking out again having achieved nothing.

The set designs and costumes are impressive, and the strictly hierarchical class structure of money, titles, shallowness, and gossip upstairs, contrasted with servants (with their own hierarchy), hard work, and more gossip downstairs, is notionally interesting. But in this house, both levels are overflowing with uninteresting and irrelevant people irritating each other for an agonizingly long 137 minutes.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Movie Review: The Remains Of The Day (1993)

An elegant drama, The Remains Of The Day unfurls emotional power in a story of quiet service and unrequited love superimposed upon history-shaping events.

In 1958, James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is still the butler at the lavish Darlington Hall in England, a position he has held for decades. The mansion is now owned by former US Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). As Stevens heads out to visit former housekeeper Sarah Kenton (Emma Thompson), he recollects the Hall's pre-World World Two glory years.  

In the 1930s, Lord Darlington (James Fox) is a respected member of the upper echelons, frequently hosting global diplomatic dignitaries. Darlington believes Germany was badly treated at the end of the Great War, and is inclined to support the belligerent ambitions of her new rulers. Lewis is among the visitors, and warns against appeasement. Stevens maintains strict dominion on the battalion of servants ensuring all events at Darlington Hall proceed flawlessly, and does not allow the failing health of his father (Peter Vaughan) to distract him. Miss Kenton proves her capabilities and becomes Stevens' confidant. She also believes a romance can develop between them, but Stevens resists the notion, maintaining an unerring focus on his duties.

Director James Ivory, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant bring Kazuo Ishiguro's novel to life with breezy delicacy. While period dramas can suffer from slow-paced stuffiness, The Remains Of The Day delivers surprisingly brisk and varied story lines. The twin timelines from the 1950s and the 1930s add a wisdom-of-the-years layer of soulful reflection, the nostalgic past harbouring equal measures of pride and regret. Meanwhile, the mix of estate management, stifled romance, inter-class dynamics, and diplomatic intrigue creates rich cross-currents for multi-faceted drama.

Jhabvala's script is pointed and purposeful, every scene adding character depth or incidents of note, the dialogue exchanges filled with couched sparring. Stevens resides at the centre, setting the heartbeat of the household. He sees and hears everything but carefully chooses what to retain and when to engage, sidelining personal opinions to avoid interfering with loyalty. Anthony Hopkins has rarely been better, never betraying Stevens' emotions but always hinting at the real man hiding within the exceptionally proper butler. Emma Thompson's Miss Kenton is a perfect foil, a capable and independent thinker not afraid to speak her mind and express emotions to the edge of socially acceptable limits.

The aesthetics find plenty of joy within the lavish interiors and exteriors of Darlington Hall (many estates were used during filming). Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts creates energy from sets full of details and animated by the movement of busy servants rushing between wings and hallways to satisfy every household need. Stevens' road trip in 1958 to visit Miss Stevens opens up the visuals to the English countryside with a side-trip to a local village after an automotive mishap.

Not every element works perfectly. Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington's godson flounders in an underwritten role, while Christopher Reeve as Congressman Lewis is supposed to represent emerging American global influence but struggles for traction. A French diplomat (Michael Lonsdale) is consigned to a buffoonish role complaining about his footwear.

But these are minor quibbles. The Remains Of The Day is a poignant time-and-place character study, where resisting all temptations is a prerequisite for excellence, and the reward for a job well done is to do it all over again the next day.

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Saturday, 25 June 2022

Movie Review: I Care A Lot (2020)

A crime drama with a dark sense of humour, I Care A Lot presents a compelling premise but gets trapped in an unsavoury den of crooks.

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) runs a seemingly respectable guardianship business. But she is actually a cutthroat con artist, obsessed with getting rich by bilking fortunes from vulnerable elderly people. With her business partner and lover Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), Marla conspires with corrupt doctor Karen Amos (Alicia Witt) to target her next victim, the wealthy Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest). Marla obtains a court order, commits Jennifer to a care home, and takes control of all her possessions.

In Jennifer's safe deposit box, Marla finds a bag full of diamonds with no receipts. She starts to suspect the old woman is not as defenceless as she seems. Sure enough, Jennifer is the mother of Russian mob boss Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). He dispatches lawyer Dean Ericson (Chris Messina) to buy-off Marla, but she senses the opportunity of a lifetime and digs in her heels, leading to an epic showdown with Roman.

Within a milieu of slick visuals and the occasional flash of acidic humour, I Care A Lot intentionally creates a dynamic with no sympathetic characters to cheer for. Writer and director J Blakeson introduces Marla as a purely despicable predator, then Roman as a cut-throat gangster, and allows them to crash into each other, two bad people engaged in warfare. From a pure morality standpoint, the best outcome is for both of them to get comprehensively trounced.

It's a risky edge to balance on. Marla's pure tenacity to never give an inch, especially to a low-life male, should be admirable, but her heartlessness reduces her to a contemptible villain. Rosamund Pike deserves plaudits for fully investing in a steely woman who, somewhere along the pathway to riches, detoured to an astounding level of narcissism. To an extent, she is let down by Blakeson's script, especially in the second half. Once Roman's goons start to demonstrate laughable ineptness, the film loses the oblique advantage earned during the sparkling build-up.

Marla turns into an action heroine to escape death and save Fran, as the narrative spirals from a battle of wits to routine action nonsense, the sense of cerebral sly ruthlessness all but lost. Very briefly, Dianne Wiest as the underestimated victim Jennifer Peterson threatens to emerge as the one person worth caring for. But the brief opportunity passes, I Care A Lot relatively unique in presenting a collection of scoundrels who may be smart, but are definitely not worth caring about.

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Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)

A lightweight crime caper, Now You See Me mixes magic and revenge-most-elaborate in a glitzy package, with frills overpowering content.

Four magicians are brought together by a mysterious benefactor for a show in Las Vegas. Illusionist Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), escapist Henley (Isla Fisher), and sleight-of-hand artist Jack (Dave Franco) perform as the Four Horsemen then shock their audience by seemingly stealing money from a French bank to conclude the show.

The FBI's Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with the Interpol's Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) to investigate, but they are forced to release the magicians due to lack of evidence. Dylan consults with magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who believes the Four Horsemen have planned multiple heists. Sure enough, at their next show in New Orleans they deliver a financial shock to their sponsor, insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and humiliate Dylan in the process. He doggedly pursues them to try and stop further audacious criminal acts.

A none-too-serious affair, Now You See Me bounces off the energy generated by magic deployed to even the score. Director Louis Leterrier maintains rapid pacing and infuses the aesthetics with jazzy special effects and light shows. The Four Horsemen's performances are less about magic and more about throwing cinematic CGI and hair-raising stunts onto the screen, the outcome frivolous if never boring.

The script (by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt) introduces mystical elements related to a secret society of magicians established in ancient Egypt, but of course has no idea where to go with the hokum. Instead, Now You See Me plays fast and loose with logic while looking for traditional thrill rides like the big fight and the big car chase. Essential plot elements pop up purely to maximize the mindless entertainment quotient; hence, a massive safe containing untold millions is introduced out of nowhere moments before it becomes central to the climax. It's fairly easy to trace the outline of the big final twist, which, in retrospect, makes little sense.

The talented cast members add plenty of star power but are mostly pulled along by the wild antics, all the characters remaining at the sketch level while trading spiky barbs. Woody Harrelson best manages to infuse some wicked personality traits into the mentalist Merritt, while veterans Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine add weight in relatively minor roles. 

Now You See Me pulls off an old trick: dazzling with style to distract from limited substance.

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Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Movie Review: C'mon C'mon (2021)

An uncle-nephew drama, C'mon C'mon appears to have important things to say but never quite gets there.

Radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is on a cross-country assignment interviewing young teenagers about their thoughts on the future. After finishing a stint in Detroit, he travels to Los Angeles to visit his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) and her 9-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman). Johnny and Viv are close but their relationship was tested during their mother's difficult final days a year earlier.

Now Viv needs to travel to Oakland support her husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), who is suffering from mental health issues. Johnny agrees to care for Jesse, who has peculiar habits and anxieties related to his father's condition. Uncle and nephew start to bond, and Jesse learns to use Johnny's sound recording equipment. When Viv's stay in Oakland is prolonged, Johnny takes Jesse to his next set of interviews in New York.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, C'mon C'mon looks gorgeous. Robbie Ryan's sharp black and white cinematography evokes a simpler era consistent with a child's perspective, and both the interiors and street-level exteriors glow with stark possibilities.

Unfortunately, the aesthetics are more engrossing than the content. A large chunk of the film is occupied by random young adolescents expressing their hopes for the future and advising adults on how to be better adults. Potentially interesting as discussion material for a junior college freshman class, here the snippets become cinematic dead space. Johnny's morose descriptive narration does not help.

Mills does better with young Jesse's quirky behaviour in the form of angled curiosity and signs of a troubled psyche stemming from a father's sickness and mother's stress. As he gets to know his uncle, Jesse enjoys interacting with an engaged and healthy surrogate father figure, and Johnny experiences joys and responsibilities he has otherwise missed out on. Warmth permeates their bonding process.

Increasingly missing his mother, Jesse starts to test boundaries, and in the absence of a committed and present parent to bounce off, his arc's possibilities are truncated. The ideas predictably dry up and the pacing slows to a crawl, Mills defaulting to the awful crutch scene of screaming-obscenities-in-the-wilderness as a clunky metaphor for emotional release. 

Fragments of more interesting adult issues do surface, including Johnny's regrets in life and the tension between him and Viv, but these are barely exploited. C'mon C'mon teases with possibilities, but chooses kidspeak instead.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Movie Review: Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

An action thriller, Law Abiding Citizen poses tough questions about the justice system then wades into a murky puddle of muddled loyalties.

In Philadelphia, government employee Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) witnesses the murder of his wife and daughter in a violent home invasion by criminals Ames and Darby. The assailants are arrested and charged; Ames is sentenced to death, but as a result of a plea bargain approved by prosecuting attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), Darby escapes with nothing more than a five year prison sentence.

Ten years later, Ames suffers a painful death in a botched execution by lethal injection. Darby is kidnaped and tortured to death by Clyde, who then surrenders. Nick and his boss District Attorney Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill) try to extract a confession, but Clyde is just starting an elaborate revenge plot targeting Nick and the entire flawed justice system. 

Half of an entertaining vigilante thriller, Law Abiding Citizen starts with a bang. Director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer create an unflinching nightmare as, in short order, Clyde loses everything then suffers again at the hands of a misfiring judicial process. The 10-year zip forward is effective, and the uncompromising revenge extracted upon the home invaders sets up what should have been a hard-hitting second half.

But towards the middle of the film Gray loses control. Law Abiding Citizen stalls in a series of increasingly far-fetched murders and atrocities veering well away from any rational vendetta. Clyde psychologically drifts from likeable victim seeking elaborate but morally justified revenge towards a mayhem-loving psychopath, while an awkward and ultimately unsuccessful U-turn attempts to place Nick at the plot's sympathetic centre. The unsatisfying climax short-changes both men and challenges time and space logic.

Despite the notable fade, many memorable moments are on offer, including a gotcha courtroom meltdown, a bloody jail cell episode, and a dangerous phone call in a judge's office. Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx contribute plenty of presence without needing to stretch. They are well supported by Leslie Bibb as an up-and-coming prosecutor, Regina Hall as Nick's wife, and Viola Davis as a Mayor increasingly concerned by the explosion of violence in her city.

Law Abiding Citizen is first a man with a plan, then pain without gain.

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Sunday, 19 June 2022

Movie Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (1995)

A romantic drama, The Bridges Of Madison County is soulful and scenic, but also remarkably slow.

In the present day, siblings Carolyn and Michael Johnson convene at the Iowa home of their recently deceased mother Francesca (Meryl Streep). They are surprised at her wish to be cremated with the ashes dispersed from a local bridge. Carolyn and Michael then uncover a set of Francesca's journals containing the details of a secret four-day affair she had in the 1960s.

In a flashback to 1965, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) is traveling through the area on assignment to photograph local bridges. With her husband Richard away at the state fair with the two kids, Francesca helps Kincaid with directions. During the drive then over dinner, they get acquainted. She is originally from Italy, now quietly unfulfilled as an underappreciated mother, housekeeper, and faithful wife in rural Iowa. He is a free-spirited, divorced, and happily unattached world traveler. They develop a deep bond that evolves into a passionate romance.

An adaptation of the 1992 best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges Of Madison County fully invests in a love powerful enough to upend lives and launch long-dormant dreams. Eastwood also directs, and the Richard LaGravenese script is dedicated to the singular objective of demonstrating how passion can unexpectedly spark when least expected.

Most of the film consists of Francesca and Robert conversing, the relationship evolving from an awkward introduction to a complete and mutual surrender to the force ignited between them. The 134 minutes smolder with building fervour, but the languid pacing threatens to overwhelm the available material. The central love story is only briefly interrupted by interspersed scenes of Carolyn and Michael coming to terms with who their mother really was. 

Eastwood the actor is predictably miscast as a romantic lead, and never appears comfortable as a man-of-the-world discovering true love for the first time. Fortunately, the drama is made tolerable by Streep's superlative acting. She overcomes a dubious accent to convey awakening emotions of delight, excitement, and craving for a man who nourishes her soul, and who may whisk her away from the corn fields.

The third act maturely tackles the theme of life's one grand love colliding with here-and-now pragmatism. Answers and resolutions only emerge through pain and trade-offs, The Bridges Of Madison County silent - but also slightly bored - witnesses to secrets of pleasure and sacrifice.

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