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Review of THE HARD WAY (1991) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Crime comedy
Rated R

It’s usually not a good sign when you haven’t heard of a film starring two well-known actors—especially when it was released almost 30 years ago. How good can it be, this film that somehow sank into cinematic obscurity? As it turns out, The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods, is surprisingly entertaining. It’s a keeper, especially if you’re a fan of buddy cop crime comedies.

The premise reminds you a bit of Ride Along (2014), with its familiar trope of good cop / bad cop referring, as it often does in the genre, to one good cop who’s forced to partner with someone that drives him guano crazy. Sometimes the ride-along is a wannabe cop, as in Ride Along, and sometimes it’s a geeky and clueless desk jockey, as in The Other Guys (2010). Most fans of the buddy cop movies trace the genre to 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which paired a dedicated about-to-retire cop with a loose cannon of a partner who had a death wish. But while most of the buddy cop films that have been made since then have carried a PG-13 rating to keep them more solidly in the realm of family viewing, The Hard Way followed Lethal Weapon’s lead and went with an R rating. There’s some moderate serious violence and some heavy realistic language here.

In this crime comedy from John Badham (WarGames, Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever), a no-nonsense, anger-management challenged, borderline-rogue New York City detective (Woods) is forced to partner with a naïve Hollywood action hero (Fox) who pulled some strings to arrange the ride-along experience he needs in order to research a serious role he so desperately wants.

If you can get past the hard-to-swallow (but intentionally absurd) clip scenes of the diminutive and baby-faced Fox as an Indiana Jones’ style hero, and if you can believe that he can walk the streets of New York—where giant billboards featuring his face promote his latest movie—and not be recognized, this film has a lot to offer. There are taut action sequences, a solid plot, and a pairing that, however unlikely it seems, still makes you laugh out loud in a quite a few places. It’s every bit as good as films like Ride Along and Running Scared, better than Central Intelligence and Ride Along 2, and nearly as good as other films in the genre.

The stakes are high. New York City is beset by a serial killer that tips off police in advance, so he can murder people right under their noses. He wants an audience, he wants a challenge, and Det. John Moss (Woods) wants him—so badly that he’s willing to disobey orders and continue to pursue the killer, even with pampered Hollywood star Nick Lang and his fake gun and badge in tow. John tries to ditch Nick repeatedly, because nothing is more annoying than an actor asking questions constantly and trying to mimic you only moments after you’ve said or done something “gritty.” Sometimes John gets so intense and Mel Gibson crazy that you wonder why he hasn’t been put in a room with nice soft walls, but it’s that craziness that makes the film work. Woods clearly has fun in a comedic role and runs (sprints?) with it, while Fox tends to play off of him the way Alex P. Keaton did off of his liberal parents—more deadpan and puppy-dog exhuberant than anything else.

Of course there’s a love interest (Annabella Sciorra, as Susan)—or at least a “date” interest—that enables sensitive ladies’ man Nick to school his gruff and socially inept partner in how to behave around her. Some familiar faces turn up, too, in the supporting cast, including Luis Guzmán, LL Cool J, Delroy Lindo, and Penny Marshall. Martin Scorsese’s father even appears in a cameo, and you’ll recognize the late actor because of a strong family relationship.

There’s really no point in giving away any more of the plot, but I will share that I found myself suspecting why a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly called the movie out for being uneven, “all guns and gag lines.” Rather than a uniform middle-of-the-road blended dramedy, The Hard Way offers alternating serious dramatic action sequences and comedic moments. There are times when you find yourself thinking, well this is intense, as well as moments of lightly comedic interludes and the occasional laugh-out-loud line. There’s less of an attempt to blend the action and comedy in The Hard Way, which almost makes it feel unique, though it follows the buddy cop formula in every other way.

Entire family: No (older teens and adults)
Run time: 111 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated R for violence and language

Language: 10/10—Here’s where the film gets its R rating by today’s standards, with a few dozen f-bombs and 50 or so more minor swearwords

Sex: 2/10—Aside from a male mooning there are brief mentions of sex acts

Violence: 5-10—There are shootouts and a bar brawl and a realistic fight scene; one person looks to be shot dead, but isn’t really; lots a shooting and peril but really nothing too graphic

Adult situations: 5/10—John is trying to quit smoking, he and Nick have drinks at a bar, and there are several drunks

Takeaway: Despite the odd couple pairing, it works, and, as I said, it’s surprisingly entertaining . . . enough for fans of the buddy cop genre to keep in their home library

 

Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Horror-Mystery
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place? More

Review of LUCKY GRANDMA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy, Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Timing matters, and this first full-length feature from director Sasie Sealy comes to Blu-ray at a time when Bong Joon-Ho’s surprising Oscar-winning Parasite is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Like that South Korean film, Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown, is a black comedy that veers into thriller territory. It’s a mash-up of genres that also carries an unspoken social message. With Bong it was class inequity; with the New York-based Sealy, it’s aging. And her main character, the recently widowed Grandma Wong, refuses to go gently into that good night, or even move in with her son and his family.

Don’t bother looking up Sealy’s Wikipedia page, because she’s so new she doesn’t even have one yet. So far her big push to get on the film world’s radar has come from her participation in Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival, which twice honored her with Student Visionary Awards (Elephant Garden, 2008; Dance Mania Fantastic, 2005). But with a first feature that’s as solid as Bong’s own black comedy debut (Barking Dogs Never Bite), she’ll be getting that Wikipedia page and probably more awards soon enough.

If your family liked Parasite, you’ll like Lucky Grandma. It’s a film for families that like to push their entertainment boundaries. Children who enjoy it will be old enough to handle the mixed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese voice track with English subtitles, because when it comes right down to it that’s the biggest factor. There’s violence, but not nearly as much as what’s shown in the average superhero movie. There’s language, but again nothing compared to what Hollywood has been producing lately. And there’s smoking, but it’s more of a comic device than anything else. More

Review of THE PALEFACE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Over a 60-year film career, comedian Bob Hope starred in 54 features, but the former vaudevillian was also known for the USO shows he emceed from 1941-91, performing for American military personnel in times of war and peace. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and also received the Medal of Merit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Spirit of Hope Award (named for him) from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In other words, Bob Hope, who died at age 100 in 2003, is a national treasure. Since only one of his films (Road to Morocco) has been included in the National Film Registry, the public is dependent upon studios like Kino Lorber to preserve and release the old classics that are worth watching and rewatching. And The Paleface is a good one.

Of Hope’s films, the historical costume comedies are as much fun as the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. While The Princess and the Pirate is the best of the powdered wig era comedies, The Paleface is tops among the Westerns that Hope made. In it, we see Hope at the height of his career, both as an actor and as a comedian. The hard-working comic had appeared in four feature films in 1947, and a year later The Paleface teamed him with Jane Russell—the WWII pin-up “girl” who famously debuted five years earlier in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and had only appeared in one other soapy drama. Surprisingly, the two play well off each other, with Russell the straight man, of course.

It’s good to finally get this title on Blu-ray, though the timing is probably unfortunate. As monuments are being toppled and even Mount Rushmore has come under fire, this film’s title and treatment of Native Americans is racist—there’s no other way to put it. But this was the ‘40s, and all of America was thinking along the lines of what talented writer Frank Tashlin incorporated into the screenplay. No one thought anything of having just two Native Americans playing Indians and the rest played by Caucasians, and no one bristled when Native Americans were depicted as stern-faced chiefs (“How!”) or wacky medicine men. Wrong as we now know it to be, it was all part of the stereotypical humor of the era.

So where does that leave us? I personally think that it’s wrong to deny or erase history. Instead, America needs to own up to that history, and you don’t do that by burying it and forgetting it. America needs to learn from the past and learn to appreciate artwork and cultural artifacts from previous eras for what they are. You can enjoy a film for its performances and comedy and also be aware that what you’re seeing is no longer appropriate. And Hope’s historical comedies—the Westerns especially—are a good place to start if you want to teach your children about racism and racial stereotypes. They’ll find the films amusing, but then you can also talk about what you just saw and educate them on the reality of Native Americans in the U.S.

Hope plays “Painless” Peter Potter, who picks a peck of trouble when he pulls the wrong tooth and has to skip town. As he’s leaving, Calamity Jane (Russell) hops aboard his wagon following a shootout. She’s a government agent on secret assignment: discover who’s supplying weapons and explosives to the Indians and stop them before they start another war. And what better way to blend in than by joining a wagon train with a “husband” who’s as clueless as they come?

Even the violence (and that includes people shot to death) is played for laughs in The Paleface. Some of the gags involve several Indians clueless as Potter as well as laughing gas that Potter uses to numb patients, but the bulk of them revolve around his bumbling ineptitude and cowardice—especially compared to his rough-and-tough sharpshooting “wife.” There’s a surprising amount of character development in this comedy, which also stars American Indian actors Iron Eyes Cody and Chief Yowlachie, and frequent “heavy” Jeff York.

Hope often found a way to sing in his films, and in The Paleface he’s in peak form performing “Buttons and Bows,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Mostly, though The Paleface is just good old-fashioned slapstick and one-liner fun, with a plot that’s strong enough to pull the whole wagon.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 91 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for hints of innuendo and comic violence)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here of consequence

Sex: 2/10—Women in pantaloons, repeated hints of romance, comic kisses and one passionate one

Violence: 3/10—All violence is comic, including fistfights, shootings, and running gags of being dragged by horses and the number of Indians killed by a proclaimed hero

Adult situations: 0/10—Nothing not already mentioned

Takeaway: Kino Lorber did an excellent job on the transfer, with crisp audio and Technicolor presentation sharp and vivid as can be. Would it be too much to hope for The Princess and the Pirate, Monsieur Boucaire or another Hope Western, Fancy Pants (with Lucille Ball) next?

 

Review of EMMA (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings. More

Review of THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Crime comedy-drama

Heist or “caper” movies surged during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, with no fewer than 40 of them made. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Ocean’s 11 and The Pink Panther inspired remakes, and films like The Sting and How to Steal a Million continue to get a lot of love. But a forgotten heist film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls, deserves at least a little love.

Unlike today’s heist movies, there’s practically no violence in this 1967 entry that’s just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Shot during the decade James Bond debuted on the big screen, Caper was made at a time when keeping it suave and clever was a priority. Russell Rouse had written the screenplay for Pillow Talk, and as director he brought a light touch to Caper, bolstered by a bright and cheery Vic Mizy soundtrack that came out of the “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” era but would be just as at home in an Austin Powers score.

Stephen Boyd (best known for playing Ben-Hur’s chariot-racing nemesis in the 1959 epic) stars as Peter Churchman, who’s no choirboy. But he’s still a heck of a nice guy. He and his fellow flyboys got into the bank robbery business after the war, but they’ve been retired and waiting out the statute of limitations so they can carry on with their lives without fear of discovery. Churchman owns a club in a small Spanish town and has a relationship with local law enforcement that will remind viewers of Casablanca. His old military pals are married, as Peter hopes to be. Then one of the gang—a “waif” the group enlisted because she had certain skills (Giovanna Ralli)—blackmails Peter so that he’ll agree to get the group together for one last job: to steal the jewels of the statues of the Virgins that have been brought to Pamplona for the Feast of San Fermin. More

Review of ALASTAIR SIM’S SCHOOL FOR LAUGHTER: 4 CLASSIC COMEDIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Not rated (would be PG)
Comedy

Alastair Sim (best known for his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol) is the common denominator in this Blu-ray quartet of old black-and-white British comedies: The Belles of St. Trinian’s, School for Scoundrels, Laughter in Paradise, and Hue and Cry.

The most interesting of the four is Hue and Cry (1947),which gets its title from a 1285 British statute decreeing that any private citizen who witnesses a crime must make a “hue and cry” and doggedly pursue the criminal until the offender can be taken into custody. If you ever watched Gomer Pyle shout “Citizen’s arrest” on the old Andy Griffith Show, you get the idea. It’s a fun premise when the one doing the hueing and crying is a naïve bumpkin like Gomer or a teenager who recruits his “gang” to help catch the criminals.

The film was shot less than two years after WWII ended, and it’s fairly incredible for American teens and tweens to see what life was like in England immediately after the war. There are blocks and blocks of bombed-out buildings, some of which become haunts and clubhouses for young people, with heaps of rubble that spread like sand dunes to be climbed. It looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet here’s this “gang” of boys who are all wearing schoolboy shirts and ties and sportcoats and being just as proper as can be when they address adults.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads from The Trump comics magazine (seriously—that’s the name of it) but discovers a page is missing. To find out how funny-page detective Selwyn Pike solves the crime he runs off to buy a copy. But while reading the newest installment he looks up and sees two men carrying a crate into a furrier’s shop and the men are using a truck with the exact same license plate as in the comic. Coincidence? Joe thinks not. He tries to investigate and gets caught, with Inspector Ford telling him essentially to go back to school and stop coming up with these wild ideas. It’s almost the reverse situation of the pickpocket gang in Dickens’ London, with these urchins of all ages joining forces to try to prove that there really is something going on, and it’s somehow connected to the author of the comics (Sim). In him they find a believer, but also someone who cautions that this gang might be too ruthless for them to tangle with. And so it goes, with a climax that looks as if director Charles Crichton asked every boy in London to be extras in a memorable battle royale. As I said, once you can get accustomed to the boys’ British slang and rapid speech it’s one of the strongest in this collection because it’s also a vivid glimpse of history that textbooks don’t show us. Like two other films in this collection it’s more clever than funny, but there’s something to be said for cleverness. B More

Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

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Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do? More

Review of THE MERGER (DVD)

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Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message. More

Review of PARASITE (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
Comedy, crime thriller
2019, 132 min., Color
Universal
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean DTS-HDMA 5.1 (or dubbed English 2.0)
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Parasite is a South Korean black comedy with English subtitles that was among my Top Five films for 2019, along with Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), the Korean film focuses on a poor family that plots to sponge off of a rich family.

The structure is classic, with one small act leading to another, and another, growing larger each time. Before you watch, it’s okay to look up “parasite” in the dictionary and discover something like this: “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.” In fact, Bong counts on the association, if the audience is really going to appreciate his film. But if you’re not a fan of spoilers, stay away from the encyclopedia or specific case histories of certain parasites like mistletoe. Wait until after you’ve seen Parasite and then read up. It will make the film resonate all the more.

The Kim family struggles to get by. They live in a basement apartment in a crappy neighborhood where people urinate outside their window. The first hint of their parasitic nature is that they’re tapped into other people’s wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and college-age daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are all unemployed and have only temporary jobs that bring in just a little money as the family struggles to get by. More

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