Monday, 23 May 2022

Movie Review: Blue Sky (1994)

An army drama, Blue Sky uneasily mixes Cold War home-front military machinations with a story of a marriage compromised by mental illness and lust.

In 1962, Major Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) is a nuclear engineer working on the US Army's nuclear bomb testing program in Hawaii. His free-spirited wife Carly (Jessica Lange) suffers from severe mood swings, partially caused by her frustration at abandoning dreams of a Hollywood career to become an army wife. Their teenaged daughters Alex and Becky are used to frequent family relocations, but are exhausted by their mother's erratic behaviour.

Hank's next assignment is in Alabama, where Carly's sensuality scandalizes the army base community and attracts the attention of commander Vince Johnson (Powers Booth). Seeking to seduce Carly, Vince dispatches Hank to witness a nuclear test in Nevada, where Hank is shocked to find civilians exposed to radiation. Upon his return he has to deal with a disintegrating family and an army cover-up.

Filmed in 1991 but shelved until 1994, Blue Sky is a patchy and uneven drama. The restless, sensual, and perhaps bipolar wife provides Jessica Lange the license to thrill, and she does not disappoint with a scintillating performance. The burden her Carly places on a straightlaced military husband is an inviting mix of embarrassing episodes, awkward patience, and marriage-saving restraint. However, the second and third acts unravel in a hurry. Infidelity is quickly followed by a clumsy attempt at redemption, all in the shadow of a poorly defined cover-up and unsteady commentary about military hawks.

The title refers to the invisible hazards of radiation, but the debate about nuclear testing is limited to Marshall supporting the switch to underground tests while the establishment is gung-ho about protocols and unconcerned when civilians are exposed to danger. The topic is too serious to be consigned to the background of a libido-driven drama, and director Tony Richardson never finds the right balance between Carly's frolics and Cold War-driven tensions.

The script by Rama Laurie Stagner, Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling is more at home within family dynamics, and supplements Carly's frequently unhinged behaviour with decent representations of a military family's life of continuous relocation. A unique type of love does glue Marshall and Carly together, while daughters Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp) provide a human face to the required resiliency of military kids. They confront their mother's mood swings with the pragmatism of rapidly evolving self-sufficiency.

Without ever quite achieving clarity of purpose, Blue Sky combines choppy patches with bright intervals.

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Movie Review: Marley And Me (2008)

A drama-comedy about familial love, Marley And Me is a surprisingly poignant story of life's ups and downs, with a pet at the centre of it all. 

Newspaper reporter John Grogan (Owen Wilson) marries his sweetheart Jenny (Jennifer Aniston), also a print journalist, and they start their life together in Fort Lauderdale. The first addition to the family is the puppy Marley, a spirited Labrador retriever. Marley is hyperactive, beyond any training, chews on anything, but also full of love for his owners.

With guidance from his editor Arnie (Alan Arkin), John becomes a popular columnist. The family expands with the arrival of kids, and Jenny sacrifices her career to stay at home as a full-time mom. Marley grows from puppy to adult dog, but loses none of his ability to cause mischief. He provides inspiration for John's columns, and makes Jenny's bad days worse. Then John is presented an opportunity to return to his passion for reporting, which would mean uprooting the family to Philadelphia.

Marley And Me has all the superficial hallmarks of a lightweight romantic comedy. But writers Scott Frank and Don Roos have something else entirely in mind, and create an engaging story about middle class foundations. Directed by David Frankel and based on John Grogan's autobiographical book, Marley And Me avoids contrivances and settles down as semi-serious look at the effort needed to make a family function.

The dog angle adds humour and poignancy, celebrating a beloved pet as an essential if frequently disruptive presence. But thankfully Marley's shenanigans are in service of the plot, and not the other way around. The core narrative is simple but yet compelling. Plans, surprises, careers, great sex, vacations, heated arguments, child rearing, countless decisions, good days and bad days all make up John and Jenny's journey together. None of it is exceptional, all of it is important.

Through it all the couple emerge as refreshingly ordinary and free from artificial drama. John and Jenny underscore the benefits of complementary characters maturing together, his laid-back observant attitude clicking with her plan-oriented tendencies. They are always communicating, reading each other's moods, appreciating the power of togetherness, and talking through their problems. Perfectly cast in the central roles, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston don't need to do much more than slip into their comfortable screen personas.

In the grand scheme of things, Marley And Me is about nothing more than routine middle class first world experiences. It's also about nothing less than caring for society's essential fabric, plus a rowdy dog.

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

Movie Review: The Red Violin (1998)

An ambitious multi-story epic, The Red Violin traces a musical instrument's 300 year history. Narrative twists, elegant storytelling, and visual beauty combine to craft a masterpiece.

In Cremona, Italy, of 1681, violin maker Nicolo Bussotti saves his best creation as a gift for his soon-to-be-born child, hoping his offspring will become a great musician. Nicolo's pregnant wife Anna is worried about the future, and asks her clairvoyant servant for a Tarot reading. The violin is subsequently painted a deep red.

In 1793, the red violin is used for music lessons at an orphanage in the Austrian alps. The monks notice that young orphan Kaspar Weiss has prodigious talent. Benefactor Poussin relocates Kaspar to Vienna and starts training him for his big debut in front of the city's elites.

In 1890, the red violin belongs to English virtuoso Lord Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng). He performs stunning compositions, drawing inspiration from spirited sex sessions with his lover Victoria (Greta Scacchi), a writer. When she departs for Russia, Pope sinks into a depression. The lovers continue corresponding and eventually Victoria decides to return to England, but a surprise awaits.

Shanghai in the late 1960s is gripped by the Cultural Revolution, and western symbols are unwelcome. Music teacher Zhou Yuan is fond of violins and classical western music, but is in danger of being arrested. Political officer Xiang Pei publicly defends him, then secretly asks him to care for the red violin, which was a gift from her mother.

In the Montreal-set modern-day story linking all the others, the red violin is up for auction. Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) is the auction house appraiser, and in the lead up to the sale he works with researcher Evan Williams (Don McKellar) to confirm the violin's origins. When the auctioneer (Colm Feore) starts the session, the room is full of people interested in bidding, but Charles has a plan.

A Canadian production directed by François Girard and co-written with actor McKellar, The Red Violin succeeds in both scope and audacity. The potential inherent weakness of recounting five stories linked only by an inanimate object is cleverly overcome, thanks to the intersection of the capstone auction chapter (the present influenced by the past) with the Tarot reading (the past forecasting the future). But most notable is the storytelling courage, featuring feints at traditional directions then sharp pivots into more startling territory.

The Tarot cards tease out the violin's murky future, rather than pregnant Anna's destiny. Music as a force more powerful than life itself emerges as an overarching theme, Girard and McKellar not shying away from the unexpected demise of key characters as long as the resilient instrument soldiers on. And not satisfied with spanning 300 years, events also spin across the globe from Europe to Asia and North America, celebrating music's globalism. Often magnificent Alain Dostie cinematography forges a sense a time and place, enhancing Girard's eye for framing.

The script stays on its toes and takes delight in disrupting the best plans of mere mortals: violin maker Bussotti has grandiose dreams for his child; benefactor Poussin plots a pathway to riches on the tender shoulders of his discovery. Fate has other ideas, and by dashing hopes and dreams more than once, The Red Violin laments life's fragility and finds comfort in music's essential role tying together the collective human experience.

In-between the short stories, Girard marks the passage of time with interludes showing the red violin adding communal joy. In the orphanage for more than 100 years, the violin is the centrepiece instrument. In the hands of gypsies for another century, the violin adds a festive soundtrack to nomadism. Simple joys, after all, are the true pleasures between milestone events.

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Saturday, 21 May 2022

Movie Review: Four Good Days (2020)

An addiction drama, Four Good Days is an intense story of a mother and daughter navigating a crisis. The performances are excellent, but the cinematic scope is limited.

After a one year absence, 31-year-old heroin addict Molly Wheeler (Mila Kunis) shows up at the suburban house of her mother Deb (Glenn Close), pleading for help. Molly has been living on the streets but wants to again try to get clean. Deb has been through this many times and knows her daughter is a prolific liar. Against the advice of her husband Chris (Stephen Root), Deb nevertheless accompanies Molly to the clinic and a 14th attempt at detoxification.

This time Molly is offered a shot that would block her body's heroin urges for a month, but to avoid severe medical complications she can only take the shot if she remains clean for four more days. Deb agrees to take Molly into her house and watch her for the four crucial days. Mother and daughter start to reconnect, but every hour feels like eternity for a craving addict and her distrustful mom.

Inspired by a true story and Eli Saslow's newspaper article, Four Good Days tries hard but cannot quite shake a television movie-of-the-week small-scale feel. Director Rodrigo Garcia co-wrote the screenplay with Saslow, and dutifully hits all the expected notes of frustration, lack of trust, exhaustion, mind games, and blame percolating within a family ravaged by addiction. It's all heartfelt and rings true, but the story never rises above the familiar.

In the two central performances Mila Kunis and Glenn Close add a quality gloss. Kunis dances on the edge of despair and self-hate, while Close is grounded but not beyond falling for the euphoria of false hope. Other characters do interact with Molly and Deb, including Deb's husband Chris and Molly's ex-husband Sean, but this is essentially a two-character movie.

At regular intervals Garcia reveals past mistakes and personality traits as factors possibly contributing to Molly's surrender to drugs. Deb had fled a dysfunctional marriage, leaving her fragile daughter emotionally alone and disoriented. Already an anxious teen, substance abuse filled the vacuum of abandonment and worry. In keeping with the film's generally subdued stance, the finger pointing is mostly self-administered. Other revelations expose the horrors of a descent into a pathetic life where the only thing that matters is securing the next hit, but the lowlights are described rather than shown.

The aesthetics are suitably stark and flat, any sense of optimism crushed by the impressive strength of a brain in crisis. Four Good Days is a start, but the recovery timeline is riddled with doubt.


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Sunday, 15 May 2022

Movie Review: Greenland (2020)

An end-of-the-world thriller, Greenland focuses on individual actions as societal order disintegrates.

In Atlanta, structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is trying to mend his marriage to Allison (Morena Baccarin) and be a good dad to his diabetic young son Nathan. A newly discovered comet dubbed Clarke is expected to pass close to earth but not cause serious damage. But then a piece of the comet wipes out Tampa, and John receives a Presidential alert ordering him to report with his family to a military base for evacuation to a secret shelter.

It's soon apparent the comet represents an extinction-level event, and governments have concealed the impact severity to avoid mass hysteria. In the chaos to board the evacuation plane John, Allison and Nathan are separated, but John learns the planes are heading to Greenland. The Garritys have to overcome numerous challenges to reunite at the rural home of Allison's father Dale (Scott Glenn), before trying to plot a path to survival.

After trying to save the world in the awful Geostorm, Gerard Butler narrows his objectives to just saving his family as another calamity threatens planet Earth. The result is a much better doomsday thriller, with only judicious use of not-bad special effects, mostly confined to the background.

The Chris Sparling script resonates by ignoring political leaders and governmental machinations. Officialdom is only represented by overwhelmed army volunteers following orders and trying to organize evacuations. Greenland primarily exists at the level of everyday families and individuals abandoned to deal with cataclysmic events on their own, and director Ric Roman Waugh thrives in portraying the range of reactions. 

After a solid opening act to establish the premise and the Garrity family dynamic, the middle segment is exceptionally dark, both in setting and events. First John is separated from Allison and Nathan, then Allison and Nathan are separated after a series of harrowing encounters exposing how quickly seemingly normal people can lose their senses. Meanwhile John also has to fight for survival and discovers attributes about himself he would have preferred to never learn.

But as some people embrace crime and anarchy, others go above and beyond to help. Greenland seeks a balance and underlines the range of human capability, both John and Allison encountering predators and saviours. Waugh underlines some altruistic acts with sentimental excess, but also succeeds in coupling intensity with searing revelations. John and Allison have their problems as an imperfect couple, but the survival experience brings them together in an affecting, visceral conclusion. The end of the world is an experience like no other to strip away distractions and reveal the essence of what matters.

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Saturday, 14 May 2022

Movie Review: Bridget Jones's Baby (2016)

A romantic comedy, Bridget Jones's Baby carries all the blotches of an unnecessary second sequel trying to squeeze money out of a series well past its best-by date.

In London, Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) celebrates her 43rd birthday on her own, still despondent that she cannot find her one true love. To cheer her up, work colleague Miranda (Sarah Solemani) drags Bridget to a music festival, where she has a one-night stand with online dating tycoon Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Meanwhile, Bridget twice bumps into the elusive love of her life Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), including at the funeral of her other ex-lover Daniel Cleaver. 

Mark's marriage is in trouble, and soon he and Bridget share a passionate night. A few weeks later she finds herself pregnant but does not know who the father is. Meanwhile Bridget's television studio workplace is also in chaos, as a new generation of young managers take over and introduce radical changes.

Renée Zellweger returns to the screen after a six year hiatus, but both the actress (47 years old) and the character (43 years old) are too old for the frivolous material. In the 2001 original, Bridget was in her early thirties and easily excused for stumbling her way through adult responsibilities. In Bridget Jones's Baby, what was once fresh and cute is stale and near insufferable, Bridget in middle age still operating with the physical coordination of a child, the emotional wisdom of an adolescent, and the professional incompetence of a newbie.

The screenplay by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson is too lazy to find new ideas and leans heavily on overly-familiar character mannerisms. Director Sharon Maguire stretches the flimsy who-is-the-father premise to two tired hours, both Colin Firth (stiff, bored, and boring) and Patrick Dempsey (flat, lost, and disengaged) sleepwalking their way through juvenile buck roles.

Thompson the writer cannot help the material, but at least Thompson the actress is a bright presence as Bridget's seen-it-all doctor. Otherwise, the best moments occur in the television studio where Jones works, with Sarah Solemani as on-air presenter Miranda adding a much-needed spike of sass. Her contributions are welcome, but far from sufficient to relieve the tedium as Bridget Jones's Baby labours to ineptitude.

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Movie Review: The Last Full Measure (2019)

A biographical drama retroactively examining battlefield heroics, The Last Full Measure is earnest but veers towards persistent reverence.

In 1999, Vietnam War veteran Tom Tulley (William Hurt) advocates for reopening the case of Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) to determine if he posthumously deserves the Medal of Honor. Ambitious Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is tasked with conducting the necessary research.

In April of 1966, a US Army platoon is caught in a Vietnam jungle ambush and suffers heavy casualties. Pitsenbarger rappels onto the battlefield from the safety of his helicopter to help evacuate the wounded. He saves many lives before succumbing to enemy fire, but is then awarded the Air Force Cross rather than the coveted Medal of Honor. 

Scott is initially uninterested in the entire file, but is soon drawn into the case as he tracks down survivors and hears the stories of the men involved in the fateful battle, including Billy Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Ray Mott (Ed Harris), and Jimmy Burr (Peter Fonda). Pitsenbarger's parents Frank and Alice (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd) support Scott's investigation, with Frank's ill health adding a sense of urgency.

Written and directed by Todd Robinson, The Last Full Measure is inspired by real events. The film sets out to salute the heroes of a war gone bad, and achieves this objective with ardent respect. The screenplay carries a nervous yearning for a final polish, but the production values are slick, and the tone is serious, inquisitive, and always searching for the positive instinct within the human spirit. 

As bureaucrat Scott delves into the case, frequent flashbacks from multiple perspectives recreate the ambush at the centre of Pitsenbarger's story. The combat scenes are suitably chaotic, the on-the-ground soldiers trapped by intense enemy fire and gripped by confusion and fear. Into this arena drops Pitsenbarger to help save the wounded, and The Last Full Measure never holds back on representing the medal winner as a mythical saviour. Soaring emotive music augments the square-jawed fearless warrior image, actor Jeremy Irvine encouraged to rise above the mayhem of mere mortals.

The surrounding modern day men-of-war stories enhance the drama. Scott's investigation reopens old wounds, rekindling memories of battlefield mistakes that still haunt surviving soldiers tortured by the belief they should have done better. Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Peter Fonda embody veterans living with waking nightmares populated by death, gore, and disillusion. In an elegant gesture, John Savage appears as a sage and healing presence in the post-war Vietnam jungle, 41 years after his seminal ordeal in The Deer Hunter

Less effective is a bit of villainy in the form of Scott's boss Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), who pulls on levers of careerism to protect his bosses as the investigation reveals military missteps.

Steering away from wit, cynicism, or broader questions about war, The Last Full Measure succeeds in saluting valour within sacrifice.

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Movie Review: Deep Water (2022)

An erotic crime drama, Deep Water is a decent throwback to stories mixing sex, mystery, and malevolence. 

In Louisiana, wealthy and retired chip designer Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is married to Melinda (Ana de Armas), and they have a young daughter Trixie. Although he loves his wife, Vic does not easily display his emotions. In contrast, Melinda is passionate, demands constant affection, and works overtime to make her husband jealous by publicly flirting with other men.

Vic hints darkly that he murdered one of Melinda's former lovers. Her current close friend Joel, a musician, senses the threat and leaves town. Melinda's next man-on-the-side is piano teacher Charlie. When he drowns in a swimming pool incident, suspicions swirl around Vic, and aspiring crime author Don Wilson (Tracy Letts) starts poking around Vic's life. But Melinda is not yet done with new liaisons, leading to more turmoil.

After a twenty year absence since Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne returns to directing duties. Deep Water is familiar terrain for a director always interested in the intersection - but not full overlap - of sex, jealousy, and love. Writers Zach Helm and Sam Levinson adapt the Patricia Highsmith novel with emphasis on churning emotions beneath a staid surface, and the film draws power from the slow reveal of a unique relationship surviving on dysfunctionality.

The film does spend plenty of time in the same emotional space, but is modestly enjoyable on its own terms, including accepting the fundamentals of the Van Allen marriage. His analytically cold demeanour collides with her over-expressive nymphomania, but these opposites do attract. They knowingly push the necessary buttons to generate sparks, whether through anger or arousal. Observing a relationship seeking balance on an unconventional edge is one of the narrative strengths.

The murder and mystery elements are handled with less elegance, and exist in a suspect world of limited scrutiny. Four men related to Vic and Melinda meet a foul end; only once does Lyne bother to show investigators doing their jobs. In one of the weaker elements, it is left to aspiring author Don Wilson to instigate ineffective amateur sleuthing.

Ben Affleck is a perfect fit for the bottled-up Vic, and that's just fine because Ana de Armas generates enough wanton lust for the both of them. In an unremarkable secondary cast, all her would-be lovers are too generic to register, and they appear in her life like men falling off an assembly plant conveyor belt.

Deep Water does not reinvent the erotic mystery thriller, but rather welcomes it back with a seductive massage.

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Monday, 9 May 2022

Movie Review: Absolute Power (1997)

A thriller swirling near the pinnacle of politics, Absolute Power features an outlandish plot and uneven pacing but slick-enough execution.

While robbing the lavish Washington DC mansion of billionaire power broker Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), aging professional thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) secretly witnesses a rough sex session between US President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) and Sullivan's much younger wife Christy (Melora Hardin). When the roughness boils over into violence and Christy threatens Richmond with a letter opener, Secret Service agents Burton (Scott Glenn) and Collin (Dennis Haysbert) shoot and kill her. The President's Chief of Staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) orchestrates the cover-up.

Detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) leads the investigation into Christy's death. Luther has a fraught relationship with his daughter Kate (Laura Linney), and is content to leave town before Frank catches up with him. But when Richmond nauseatingly pretends to grieve Sullivan's loss on national television, Luther decides to stick around and expose the President's hypocrisy.

An adaptation of a David Baldacci novel with a screenplay by William Goldman, Absolute Power boasts a strong cast and a glitzy coat of polish. Director and star Clint Eastwood allows the charismatic central character of Luther Whitney to anchor the action, and the aging, laid-back career thief occupies the eye of the storm with veteran ease. Gene Hackman is a welcome foil, but his role as the smarmy President Richmond is almost too easy.

The plot is preposterous and requires a quick surrender to park-your-brain impulses. The peak arrives early: Luther hiding in a secret chamber and watching through a one-way mirror as the President's secret sex liaison starts badly then just gets worse. Eastwood's reaction shots are terrific, and the resulting mess of overlapping crimes is a great jumping-off point for a convoluted cover-up. 

Thanks to the talent involved and high production values, the follow-through is never less than engaging, but also riddled with dead-ends and logic gaps. Richard Jenkins appears as a hit-man then disappears just as mysteriously; the two secret service agents pursue their own agendas leading to nowhere; and Judy Davis' Chief of Staff starts strong then dwindles to irrelevance. Meanwhile, Eastwood unnecessarily prolong most scenes, then loses rhythmic control in the final 15 minutes. The film ends in a jumbled rush of barely coherent events and actions, everything wrapped up in a frantic rush inconsistent with the careful build-up.

Elsewhere, the father-daughter dynamics between Luther and Kate are decent, Eastwood finding ways to tease out Luther's essence while avoiding most cliches. The stuttering would-be romance between detective Frank and Kate is less impressive and never grinds out of the awkward gear. Absolute Power does not fulfill all its promises, but still provides passable potency.

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Movie Review: Late Night (2019)

A workplace comedy, Late Night tackles a few serious issues with a light touch.

In New York, celebrated British personality Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) hosts a long-running late night television talk show. But like Katherine, the show is aging, losing ratings, and threatened with cancellation by network head Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan). Seeking a refresh, inexperienced but bubbly Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the only woman writer on the otherwise all-male, all-white writing team.

Despite her profile, Katherine does not enjoy publicity, and prefers the quiet company of her husband Walter (John Lithgow), who is suffering from Parkinson's disease. Molly has to overcome criticisms that she is just a diversity hire, while her fresh ideas inject new life into the show. But then a scandal hits, threatening Katherine's reputation and jeopardizing Molly's career prospects.

Written and co-produced by Kaling, Late Night seeks chuckles in the maze of office politics. Director Nisha Ganatra delivers undemanding entertainment in a compact 102 minute package mercifully devoid of bathroom-level humour and stock romances, but never threatens to transcend the mostly predictable material.

The narrative suffers from focus uncertainty. Both Katherine and Molly can claim to be the main character, but yet neither of them quite occupy the centre. And for most of the time, the relationship between the two women is terse and distant, so this is not a dynamic duo story either. Rather, two seperate arcs interact in relatively docile patterns, leaving a sense of diffused energy.

Kaling demonstrates courage in tackling, albeit sofly, a range of relevant issues. Aging, tokenism, double-standards, health declines, mistreatment of employees, and the dissipation of intellectual discourse all make their way into engaging dialogue exchanges. The workplace landmines are acknowledged with disarming frankness as obstacles to be navigated and overcome, rather than triggers for whining. Less successful is the portrayal of Katherine's team by a gaggle of uncharismatic male actors. They may be purposefully indistinguishable as a humour device, but nevertheless too much time is spent in a room full of too many men who don't register.

After a barely sketched-in scandal causes artificial ripples, the final act refuses to veer away from the safest middle course towards sappy endings for all. The emotional final speeches - Molly and Katherine take their turns, still unsure who is the lead - barely resonate. Late Night is good for a few easy smiles, but is well forgotten by morning.

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