Thursday, 6 May 2021

Movie Review: The Secret Of My Success (1987)

A comedy set in the corporate world, The Secret Of My Success maximizes the charismatic star power of Michael J. Fox in a rompy but otherwise routine misadventure.

New college graduate Brantley Foster (Fox) leaves his home on a Kansas farm and heads to New York City to seek his fortune. When his first job falls through, he connects with distant Uncle Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan), CEO of the gigantic Pemrose corporation, and secures a mail room job where Fred Melrose (John Pankow) teaches him the ropes. 

Entranced by the beauty of Christy Wills (Helen Slater), the firm's only female executive, Brantley has no intentions of hanging around the mail room for too long. He barely survives seduction by Howard's lustful wife Vera (Margaret Whitton), then educates himself about the company and takes over an empty office, pretending to be fake executive Carlton Whitfield. Brantley starts influencing corporate decisions, all while keeping up with his mail room duties, fending off Vera, and romancing Christy.

Enjoying quality production values, the directorial talents of Herbert Ross, an occasional good laugh, and a prototypically obnoxious 1980s soundtrack, The Secret Of My Success is amiable, high energy, sometimes frenzied, and a perfect star vehicle for Michael J. Fox. The script is an unofficial non-musical remake of 1967's How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and at 111 minutes the material is stretched thin, Ross often favouring the flabbier cuts.

But trading on his boyish-adult charm, Fox carries the premise and runs with it. His innocent-yet-smart persona is a perfect fit at a corporation so big that barely anyone knows what is going on. This is fertile ground for an ambitious college grad eager to carve his own path, and Brantley proceeds to find unique shortcuts to the top. His progress is complicated by icky but funny liaisons with "aunt" Vera (a sparkling Margaret Whitton), and a more mundane romantic pursuit of Christy (a much less convincing Helen Slater).

The affairs, revenge affairs, and clueless corporate intrigue combine with mixed-up identities to create a few worthwhile madcap moments. The counterbalancing silliness includes a sub-sub-plot about a mail room supervisor eager to expose Brantley's double-life, and a rushed yet predictably saccharine boardroom climax.

Never threatening to rise above a fun day at the office, The Secret Of My Success punches the clock with enthusiasm.

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Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Movie Review: A Guy Named Joe (1943)

A romantic fantasy, A Guy Named Joe explores love, commitment, loss and death during wartime turbulence.

Pete Sandidge (Spence Tracy) is a daredevil American bomber pilot stationed in England during World War Two. He maintains a romance with Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). Although possessive, he never quite commits to her. After Pete and his best buddy Al Yackey (Ward Bond) are reassigned to a Scottish reconnaissance outpost, Dorinda senses Pete's impending demise.

Despite her best efforts to alter destiny, Pete does indeed die heroically while on a mission. In heaven, commanding officer The General (Lionel Barrymore) assigns him to be the guardian angel of rookie pilot Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Pete helps Ted develop into a brash leader, but jealousy bubbles to the surface when Ted meets the still-grieving Dorinda and they start to fall in love.

Combining wistfulness with clever wartime morale-boosting, A Guy Named Joe provides a multi-layered yet cohesively engrossing narrative. Dalton Trumbo's script is consciously lyrical, elevating the premise towards exhortations about the human condition and the nature of death to help make sense of catastrophic losses during a global war. Victor Fleming directs with panache, seamlessly melding the fantasy and romance elements into the pragmatic business of an imperfect war machine at work.

Legacies, carrying on and letting go are themes underpinning Pete's journey in life and beyond. The influence of the dead on the living is physically represented (but not seen or heard), Fleming and the actors pulling off tricky staging and conscious evasion. For Dorinda, Ted and Al, living and grieving are uninterrupted, although events, inner thoughts and emotions are occasionally nudged by forces unseen.

But Pete's attachment to Dorinda straddles the divide between his states of being. Helping Ted mature into a confident airman is all fun and games until he falls in love with Dorinda, and now the spectral mentor has to confront his earthly failings. Trumbo presents death as essential for collective progression and a process of individual transition, the departed, just like the living, in need of time and perspective to grasp the enormity of the change.

The cast never wink at the material, allowing the fantasy to take root and enrich the soil. Spencer Tracy sparkles as Pete, thoughtful, self-aware and reckless in life as in death, and on a journey to understand the opportunities and challenges of audacious passion of loving life without committing to it. Irene Dunne, Ward Bond and Van Johnson in his breakthrough role surround Pete with romance, friendship and a worthy protégé/rival.

The few scenes of aerial combat were created on the ground with the aid of stock footage and rear projection, and the results are surprisingly decent. But the machines and warfare are ultimately just a good backdrop to a universal story about every Joe's enduring resonance.

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Saturday, 1 May 2021

Movie Review: California Suite (1978)

A tactless comedy with dashes of drama, California Suite oscillates between pompous and cretinous.

Four unrelated stories take place over one weekend at the same Beverly Hills hotel. Divorced couple Hannah (Jane Fonda) and Bill (Alan Alda) meet to discuss the future of their 17 year old daughter Jenny. New Yorker Hannah is a highly-strung news editor who thrives on prickly insults and sharp retorts, while Bill has become much more laid back since he relocated to Los Angeles. The couple bicker endlessly.

Veteran English stage actress Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) is nominated for her first Academy Award for an unworthy role in the frivolous comedy No Left Turns. Her husband Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine), an antique dealer, is her companion for the Oscar ceremony. Diana is nervous about the evening and leans on Sidney for emotional support, but all is not well in their relationship.

Marvin (Walter Matthau) is in town for his nephew's bar mitzvah. His brother Harry (Herb Edelman) is a lecherous womanizer, and arranges for a prostitute (Denise Galik) to entertain Marvin in his hotel room. The situation gets messier when Marvin's wife Millie (Elaine May) arrives the next morning.

Doctors Chauncey Gump (Richards Pryor) and Willis Panama (Bill Cosby) and their wives are on a joint vacation and getting testy. The hotel messes up their booking, with the Gumps confined to a faulty closet-sized room while the Panamas enjoy a luxury suite. The vacation goes rapidly downhill from there.

Writer Neil Simon adapted his own play, and in the hands of director Herbert Ross what may have worked on the stage flops badly on the screen. Essentially four separate 25 minute sketches populated by distinctly unlikable people, California Suite generates a couple of chuckles but otherwise curls up into a small ball and dies. 

Worst of all is the segment featuring the Black doctors played by Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Their misadventures descend into low-brow slapstick of the pathetic kind, a miserable and painful waste of talent.

Two of the other sketches are not much better. Jane Fonda and Alan Alda are forced to spout Simon's artificially agitated hyper-intellectual theatrical prose, and their incessant sniping is quickly insufferable. Walter Matthau wrings some humour from the hapless middle-aged man trying to hide a passed-out hooker from his wife, but is ultimately defeated by material stretched too thin.

Maggie Smith and Michael Caine almost save the day with the one reasonably compelling and well-written story. Actress Diana and antique dealer Sidney's marriage is complex, and made more intricate by her propensity for drama and his caustic street-smarts. They both clearly benefit from the union, but barely concealed secrets and frustrations are nibbling away at their contentment. While far from perfect and still saddled with loquacity, this episode at least creates a memorable pair. 

Maggie Smith nabbed a real Oscar for a forgettable movie in which she is Oscar nominated for a silly comedy. From the few snippets shown No Left Turns is indeed dire, but also potentially still better than California Suite.

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Friday, 30 April 2021

Movie Review: The Morning After (1986)

A frivolous murder mystery and romance, The Morning After attempts an awkward mishmash of genres and never finds its footing.

Washed-up alcoholic actress Alex Sternbergen (Jane Fonda) wakes up in a stranger's bed and finds a dead man next to her, stabbed with a dagger. She phones her estranged husband Jackie Manero (Raul Julia) then flees the apartment in a panic. After a misadventure at the airport Alex bumps into retired and divorced police officer Turner Kendall (Jeff Bridges). A romance develops between the two lonely people, and he tries to help her out of the mess she finds herself in.

Part Hitchcock light, part half-hearted exploration of alcoholism, loneliness and second chances, part ungainly romance with misplaced wisecracks, The Morning After is a full-on mess. Writer James Hicks switches tones with clumsy, aimless transitions, then allows his characters to meander through long stretches of nothingness interrupted by thickets of bland dialogue. Director Sidney Lumet infuses bursts of colour found in the less frilly Los Angeles neighbourhoods, but is otherwise far from rescuing the material.

The opening scene is promising enough, Alex confronted by a bloody bed and an expired creep. But very quickly the pacing unravels. Bad romantic comedy vibes take over as Alex demonstrates her limited acting skills at the airport, then initiates a curbside bumper car routine, before hopping into Turner's car in an it-only-happens-in-the-movies meet-cute. The tension of the opening mystery is lost and never recovered.

Jane Fonda overcompensates with a histrionics masterclass alternating between flimsy displays of frantic victim and depressed drunk. Alex's backstory of a never-made-it actress carries appeal, but Fonda cannot wrestle down the ditzy script and find a sympathetic person within. Jeff Bridges as Turner is more of a steady presence on the receiving end of Alex's gyrating moods, but he does precious little except tag along.

With the script only bothering to introduce three characters it is never difficult to guess who is up to no good, but wait! A fourth character makes an entrance in the final 10 minutes, with about one spoken line of dialogue, in a spectacularly fumbled attempt at a twist. 

Insipid beyond salvation, The Morning After should have just stayed in bed.

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Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Movie Review: Revenge (1990)

A revenge drama and smouldering romance, Revenge never overcomes a bland script and aloof performances.

U.S. Navy pilot Jay Cochran (Kevin Costner) retires after 12 years of service and heads down to Mexico to visit his old friend Tibey Mendez (Anthony Quinn), who lives on a sprawling estate defended by armed guards. Tibey's much younger wife Miryea (Madeleine Stowe) is unhappy in their marriage and immediate sets her eyes on Jay. But Tibey is a ruthless political power-broker and will not tolerate anyone stealing his wife's heart. Nevertheless Jay and Miryea embark on a passionate affair, leading to violence. 

Author Jim Harrison adapted his own novella into a screenplay, and Tony Scott directs with his usual eye for visual flair, but the ponderously-paced Revenge never clicks. The film gets bogged down in endless plastic dialogue between Jay and Miryea, Costner and Stowe trading passive line delivery and blank looks set to sappy music. 

Once Jay and Miryea cross the line from talking to lovemaking, Tibey makes his move to forcibly separate the lovers, triggering a gore-fest. The revenge-most-violent aspects apply equally to Jay and Tibey, as both men are intent on redressing wrongs from their perspective, but all the blood-spilling unfolds with mechanical soullessness. 

The second half grows increasingly disjointed and throws a bewildering array of new characters onto the screen. A caring Mexican and his mother, a traveling Texan, a couple of guys with their own revenge agenda, and Sally Kirkland as the lead singer of a touring heavy metal band (?!) all get a few disconnected scenes, quantity trumping quality as none of them are defined well enough to progress beyond the prop stage.

In contrast to the emotion-challenged Costner and Stowe, Anthony Quinn plays Anthony Quinn, domineering, larger than life, gregarious, sneaking in a dance, and with an eye for the kill when necessary. It's an overly familiar performance but at least full of conviction, and when Quinn disappears for a long stretch, the movie loses charm.

The Mexican setting provides Scott with opportunities to capture vivid colours, gorgeous beaches, romantic sunsets, dusty small towns, dank cantinas and local flavour, and Revenge is never less than pretty to look at. The movie also opens with an irrelevant high-speed interlude as Cochran takes his final flight in a Navy jet fighter against a flaming red-orange sky. The director has an inert revenge drama on his hands, and not surprisingly would rather be somewhere else.

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Monday, 26 April 2021

Movie Review: A Place In The Sun (1951)

A romantic tragedy, A Place In The Sun explores the promise and pitfalls of the American Dream through the story of a man intent on ascending from rags to riches.

Brought up poor by missionary parents, penniless George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) arrives in the city dominated by the Eastman business of his uncle Charles (Herbert Hayes). Put to work on the bathing suit assembly line to learn the ropes, George catches the eye of production worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). They start a romance, despite strict rules forbidding the Eastmans from liaising with lowly workers.

It's not long before Alice is pregnant and leaning on George to fund an abortion or get married. But his attention has shifted. Now in a more senior role at work, he is mesmerized by wealthy socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and they are soon madly in love. She introduces him to her parents and the countryside elites, and he appears close to being accepted as a member of the influential class. But the increasingly desperate Alice represents a serious obstacle, and George starts to consider drastic solutions.

An adaptation of the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, A Place In The Sun is an elegantly mounted and torrid drama. Producer and director George Stevens, working from a script by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, seeks the passionate, sometimes tortured, drive for success within an initially humble man, drawing out a hardening resolve to ditch the past and embrace the glittering symbols of success.

This is a representative story of a nation's pursuit of happiness, but George does not invest the effort to earn his shot at success. Promoted because of the family name, he does little to justify advancement. Indeed, he struggles to hold a conversation or even look comfortable, his deep-rooted sense of inferiority forged by a difficult upbringing. 

George's desire for betterment is ignited by an infatuation that turns to love, and it helps that Elizabeth Taylor, all of 17 at the time of filming, creates in Angela Vickers an alluring woman and welcoming gateway to a different future. The perfect anti-dote to Montgomery's haunting performance filled with physical discomfort and emotionally awkward despondency, Taylor's Angela represents the promise of leisure, horseback riding, motorboat frolicking and cocktail parties, a world apart from where and how George grew up.

But his luggage is heavy, both in terms of the hesitancy in his soul and the consequences of his ill-considered affair with Alice, now a full fledged albatross around his neck. In the final act the drama extends into the courtroom, Stevens exploring what it means to be guilty and the sharp lines always safeguarding the rich and discarding wannabes to a fate defined by character flaws.

The black and white cinematography courtesy of William C. Mellor is stellar, and Stevens deploys soft dissolves and superimposed imagery to bore into George's psyche. Some of the stylistic touches are groundbreaking, including an isolated radio on a pier broadcasting grim news while the rich enjoy their motorboat fun.

Some are born into A Place In The Sun, others earn it, but most pretenders struggle to escape the anonymity of the shadows.

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Sunday, 25 April 2021

Movie Review: 2 Guns (2013)

A buddy movie with plenty of action and a streak of humour, 2 Guns offers oodles of star charisma but a nonsensical plot involving a drug cartel, bank heist, and numerous far-fetched hidden agendas.

Bobby Beans (Denzel Washington) and Michael "Stig" Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) have partnered to infiltrate and profit from the Mexican drug cartel of Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). Maintaining a thorny friendship, they keep their identities hidden from each other and both pretend to be easy-going underworld types, but Beans is actually with the DEA and Stig is with Navy Intelligence.

Beans is romantically involved with the DEA's Agent Deb Rees (Paula Patton), and arranges for Stig to be arrested after they rob a small bank holding $3 million in cartel money. But to everyone's surprise the bank heist yields a mammoth $43 million in cash. Beans and Stig start to suspect each other, and then have to evade killers from the cartel as well as rogue Navy assassins and an angry CIA dark ops unit.

An adaptation of a comic book series by Steven Grant, 2 Guns is a stylish exercise in wild action riding a ridiculous story. The film demands compliant brain disengagement and simple vibe enjoyment. Director Baltasar Kormákur tries for a while to maintain control of the narrative, but then the logic gaps expand into yawning canyons, brain-twisting double crosses multiply, and various groups of barely defined shady operatives show up with big guns intent on killing other groups of less defined shady operatives with bigger guns. 

As a good complement to the uncontrolled energy, the film's visuals pop off the screen. The vivid colour palette draws inspiration from the Mexican and southern US locales, the incessant sunshine and stark desert offering bright yellows and browns as backdrops for the frequent fire fights, car chases and macho posturing. Kormákur keeps the action moving at a breakneck pace, a good strategy to avoid coherence probes, and wraps up the adventure in 109 minutes.

Stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are in fine form and immediately click as a pair, zipping through banter and biting quips with pleasing buoyancy. Washington is more serious and circumspect and often provides a cool anchor amidst the mayhem. Wahlberg is restlessly jovial, his best plans consisting of antagonism mixed with straight-ahead bulldozing. Bill Paxton enjoys himself as the CIA's Earl, but the rest of the cast members are given little to work with and probably never quite knew which side they were on in any given scene.

2 Guns contains a lot more than just the two guns, but it's the two stars who carry the day.

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Movie Review: White House Down (2013)

An action thriller about the attempted violent overthrow of the United States President, White House Down carves out territory on the knowing side of preposterous.

Army veteran and Capitol Police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) is part of the security detail for Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Cale's 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) accompanies him to the White House, where Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of the Secret Service interviews Cale for a position on the President's security team. Father and daughter then join a White House tour.

United States President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is seeking global support for a bold but controversial Middle East peace plan. But traitorous Senior Secret Service Agent Martin Walker (James Woods) has assembled a team of mercenaries to storm the White House and overthrow Sawyer's government. The mercenaries are led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), and include psychotic white supremacist Killick (Kevin Rankin) and computer hacker Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson). 

The invaders take over the White House and seize hostages, demanding a $400 million ransom. Cale breaks loose and fights back, managing to extract Sawyer from Walker's clutches, while Emily captures and uploads video of the unfolding drama. Cale needs to keep Sawyer safe and rescue Emily as the full extent of Walker's plot becomes clear.

Silly, noisy, often stupid, overlong and saddled with graceless CGI, White House Down is also watchable because it never takes itself too seriously. While Olympus Has Fallen, also released in 2013 with a similar plot, is grittier and better, here director Roland Emmerich lets loose his (literal) flag-waving tendencies while destroying chunks of the White House (again), and whenever faced with a choice between subtle and ludicrous, chooses over-the-top. The entertainment level is of the brainless variety, but within that constraint, fun can found.

And so Cale and Sawyer engage in a ridiculous car chase, driving in circles around the fountain of the White House lawn. The bad guys alternate between one-shot, one-kill expediency and cross-eyed incompetence, depending on the script requirements. CGI-created machines crash at regular intervals in a horrible dissolution of unconvincing pixels, and any quip is a good quip, whether smart or sophomoric.

The extended preamble to introduce the characters and set the context is welcome. But the film is otherwise overlong at a wholly unnecessary 131 minutes, and despite the length, critical plot points are half-baked. It's deep into the crisis before Walker's real intentions are finally revealed in a jumbled rush, and until then the ransom demand is a limp excuse for the unfolding carnage.

The reliable cast is filled with talent and helps overcome some of the goofiness. Channing Tatum is up to the task of saving the day, and bites into the role of John Cale with grim determination to (in no particular order) keep the President safe, extricate his daughter from the clutches of maniacal seditionists, and earn himself a position with the Secret Service in the world's worst on-the-job interview. The White House may be down, but as long as a job can still be earned, it's not quite out.

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Saturday, 24 April 2021

Movie Review: Back Street (1932)

A romantic drama, Back Street is a tender exploration of a woman trapped in an impossible love.

In Cincinnati of the early 1900s, Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) is a vivacious young woman. She enjoys the nightlife and the company of men, but worries her fun-loving reputation harms her ability to find true love. She turns down a marriage offer from her cerebral neighbour Kurt Shendler (George Meeker), finding him kind but unexciting. Kurt keeps his marriage proposal open as he embarks on a career in the budding automobile industry.

Ray meets banker Walter Saxel (John Boles) and they immediately fall in love, although he is already engaged to be married to someone else. A twist of fate prevents Ray from potentially altering his marriage plans. They separate but meet again five years later in New York City and the passion immediately reignites. He is now married with two kids, but she agrees to be his mistress. He provides her with an apartment, and she starts life as the other woman, dedicated to a man who loves her deeply but will never leave his family.

An adaptation of the novel by Fannie Hurst, Back Street is clear-headed and unapologetic. The script (co-written by Ben Hecht) succeeds on multiple fronts, the love between Ray and Walter captured as painfully real, allowing the characters to emerge as soulful, flawed but also familiar adults. The high production quality is evident in brisk pacing, agile transitions between sets, and sometimes bustling street scenes. Covering many years and locations, the deep focus on an evolving relationship is ultimately captivating. 

Adopting a non-judgemental stance, director John M. Stahl never looks down on his subject. Instead Ray judges herself and is wracked by self-doubt as she sees herself as others see her, Irene Dunne sparking in her ability to convey the contradictory emotions inherent in longing for a man who can never be a full partner. And on just the one occasion Ray does suggest to Walter that he upturn his life in her favour.

But the uneasy and sometimes dangerously hollow compromise of being just a hidden part of a wonderful man's life may also suffice. As their long-term reality evolves, Walter is never less than honest and Ray approaches each subsequent step deliberately, the trade-offs never obscured and the implications clearly understood.

By bursting through the wall simplistically defining right and wrong, Back Street arrives at the place where lovers achieve partial fulfilment. As Ray finds out, the thorny benefits of the mistress arrangement carry enough appeal to fill a building. Back streets lack the warm welcome of picturesque boulevards, but they are worth exploring with open-minded courage.

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Movie Review: The English Teacher (2013)

A romantic comedy-drama, The English Teacher explores personal dreams, disappointments and disasters in a quaint milieu.

In small-town Kingston, Pennsylvania, Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore) is a fortysomething high school English teacher. A lover of books since childhood, Linda is unmarried and has no prospects. Instead she dedicates her life to instilling a love of literature in her students. Former star student Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) returns to Kingston, having graduated from New York University but despondent that his first theatrical script, The Chrysalis, was not produced. 

Jason is now yielding to pressure from his father Tom (Greg Kinnear), a doctor at the local hospital, to enrol in law school. But Linda is determined to keep Jason's playwright dream alive and teams up with drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane) to produce The Chrysalis as a high school production. But the play's ending may be too downbeat for students and their parents, and an unexpected moment of lust during rehearsals changes everything.

A modest independent production, The English Teacher frolics with a faux-haughty vibe underlined by Fiona Shaw's literary narration. Director Craig Zisk respects the unassuming ambitions of the script by Dan and Stacy Chariton, maximizing enjoyment from the idyllic small-town setting, Linda's schoolteacher perspective on all the men in her life (they all get evaluated and graded with on-screen scribbles), and a steady, but appropriately marginally theatrical, Julianne Moore performance. 

The Charitons pack their story with parallel tales of unfulfilled expectations. Linda never found her man, Jason could not get his play produced in New York, and drama teacher Carl never made it as an actor. Now Linda and Carl want to vicariously find their triumphant moments through Jason's play, but trampling on the first work of a sensitive young man carries the potential for calamity and humour.

The film avoids most rom-com cliches and explores opportunities for romance, jealousy and lust from the other side of 40. Linda may be alone but she is not done looking for Mr. Right, except that at her age, she is meeting all the Mr. Wrongs. Young, passionate and emotionally broken Jason bursts back into her life, presenting an opportunity for a self-affirming reclamation project if nothing else.

Of course with Jason sowing wild oats and moving on to frolicking with women his age, including student production lead actress Halle (Lily Collins), Linda finds herself dealing with uncontrollable pangs of jealousy, leading to frazzled, potentially career-threatening actions. It's time for The English Teacher to let her hair down and take some risks, even it means the pepper spray has to come out.

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