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Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 08:05 (A review of Spawn (1997))

Hey, remember when this was roughly as good as we could hope to get with comic book movies? I do, and thank god the days of Spawn and its far too numerous ilk are long behind us. If anything, Spawn should remain in the 90s when its hardcore, edgy aesthetic was the norm in the medium, and has simply aged poorly.


It comes roaring out the gate with a poorly rendered CG introduction that provides an exposition dump before we’re launched into the present day. Pay attention to all of the mythology that’s being dumped into your lap in those opening moments because it will be elliptically referred to throughout, and those visuals will be recycled several times over. It looks and plays like the introduction to a syndicated series, think Hercules: The Legendary Journeys but with more Edge™.


The entire thing has an overbearing quality to it that makes it play out as camp or, and for far too often, as the brain-dead juvenilia scribbling of a particularly violent and horny teenage boy. Look at the film’s lone original character, Melinda Clarke’s Jessica Priest, who exists not only as cannon fodder but to linger on the edges of the frame in skintight leather with peek-a-boo lingerie. Or the unnecessary presence of Miko Hughes’ Zack, a homeless child that’s supposed to…I don’t know, remind Spawn of his humanity? Much of his material is poorly conceived and played, and Hughes was no slouch as a child actor if you watch Pet Sematary. The less said about the one-dimensionality and gross sexualization of Theresa Randle’s Wanda, the better.


But none of these poor points can quite prepare you for John Leguizamo’s scene-chewing bluster as Clown/the Violator. When left to his worst impulses, Leguizamo can be a manic and maddening screen presence, and no one bothered to tether him to reality here. Not even a fat suit and layers of makeup can slow down this motor mouth, and you welcome the moments when the Violator rips through his corpulent flesh. The puppetry to bring that monstrosity to life has aged nicely while the CGI has not. Guess which one Spawn decides to favor with its money shots and long-lasting glimpses.


Maybe if all of this violence and noise was in service of a story that was coherent and contained enough on its own to warrant a sequel, one could be more forgiving. But Spawn clearly thinks and operates like the opening salvo in a noisy, bloody franchise that never materialized. Maybe it’s for the better since the sight of actors like Michael Jai White, Martin Sheen, and Nicol Williamson trying not to embarrass their careers here is the major highlight of the film. Although, there is something to be said for a typically nuanced and fine actor like Sheen going for broke and chewing ALL of the scenery. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it’s something.

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The Parent Trap

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 06:04 (A review of The Parent Trap (1961))

Personally, my favorite thing about The Parent Trap is how the all-American twins played by Hayley Mills manage to speak in her posh, rounded British tones throughout. Not a dig against Mills’ acting or the strength of her dual performance in making a patently absurd premise work, more of a mere observation of an interesting directorial choice. I’m not sure if The Parent Trap really deserves to remain as beloved a property as it has remained since 1961, either through the original or the Lindsay Lohan remake, but it’s certainly an enjoyable bit of fluff.


If you can vibe with the toxic and strange premise, divorced parents hated each other so much that they separated their twins and moved to opposite coasts only for the twins to meet-up at summer camp and switch places to reunite their family, then you’ll be in for a pleasant viewing. It helps that Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith generate an intense sexual chemistry here that threatens to blow apart at any moment. You can easily believe that they would grow to hate each other enough to move as far away from each other as possible when the relationship crumbled. If half of the joy of watching this is in Mills’ dual role, then the other half is watching O’Hara and Keith verbally spare and rekindle their romance.


We never get an answer as to why the parents decided to split up the children and never mention the long-lost one ever again, and the film, perhaps wisely, just simply ignores this story beat. We don’t get an answer for what went wrong in the relationship itself, but watching them press each other’s trigger points gives subtle enough clues about it. It becomes glaringly obvious that the parents still love each other once their reunited, and the complication in the way of the happy reunion, a deliciously bitchy Joanna Barnes as dad’s new gold-digging girlfriend, must be swiftly dealt with. It’s a priest played by Leo G. Carroll that lands a stinger when he tells Barnes regarding O’Hara: “Delightful, charming woman…it’s amazing how he let her slip away from him.” Well, we all mistakes, and the mischievous pixies encompassed by Mills are here to restore familial order through trickery and cunning. The Parent Trap is both a description of the plot and a mission statement for the characters.

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Three Coins in the Fountain

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 05:25 (A review of Three Coins in the Fountain (1954))

A stunning bit of picturesque travelogue and anodyne emotionally, Three Coins in the Fountain is a rusty bit of classic film-making and nothing more. You know the general plot, American girl meets handsome foreign boy, complications, then happily ever after. Just times that basic plot premise times three, and know that Three Coins provides ample opportunity to throw every single clichéd story idea you can think of into this pretty but shallow melodrama.


Certain stories work better than others, particularly Dorothy McGuire and Clifton Webb as a pair of older lovers with time not on their side, than others, Maggie McNamara is stiff but gorgeous and nothing more. It’s a shame that McNamara is so routinely locked in place, her acting style is 100% 1950s melodrama and its aged like milk, since her main screen partner is the charming Louis Jourdan, impossibly gorgeous and suave here. Jourdan knows to liven up this simplistic material with some spark of life, but McNamara just plays like a Xerox of Audrey Hepburn that’s several generations old.


Inexplicably, this was nominated for Best Picture over stellar work like Sabrina and Johnny Guitar. Even stranger, it won Oscars for Best Song and Best Color Cinematography over competition that included “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born and in the former and Rear Window in the latter. It’s one of those head-scratching pieces of trivia that makes you stare at the entire awards giving concept with a confused tilt and side-eye.


It’s a vapid viewing experience to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without enjoyment. Three Coins is a trifle, but it never pretends to be otherwise throughout its two hour stretch. After all, this is a film about Rome that positions the city less as an actual place than as the magical idea of one. And it is completely without real tension, dramatic or emotional, throughout so much of the running time that we coast along vistas, clothes, and all the accoutrements of the European glitterati that it almost begins to feel like substance.    

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She Talks to Rainbows

Posted : 6 months, 4 weeks ago on 22 January 2018 12:51 (A review of She Talks to Rainbows)

The Ronettes were a girl group that always flirted with being too much, and their sound was frequently more aggressive and dangerous than many of their counterparts and contemporaries. It was all in the way that Ronnie Spector sang. Her voice was filled with carnal knowledge, a playful adolescence, and an exquisite tension between being tough and tender. Flash forward from 1964 to 1999, she’s lost the backup singers, the Wall of Sound, but she’s picked up punk cred, rock iconography, and sounds right at home with an alternative rock edge to the pop sound.


Her voice always had a switchblade edge, and co-producers Joey Ramone (a long-time devote to the Ronettes) and Daniel Rey give her plenty of noise to surround that iconic vibrato. It comes out swinging strong with the title track, a cover of a Ramones song off ¡Adios Amigos! Ronnie Spector’s voice emerges through a dream-like haze of sonic noise and gives us that “oh-oh-oh” that will always sounds like what it feels like to fall in love to me. It’s a stellar opening to her strongest set of solo material.


There’s another Ramones cover later, “Bye Bye Baby.” “Bye Bye Baby” is a duet with Joey, and it feels like a sequel to “Be My Baby” in which the hitherto unheard object of Ronnie’s desire has a back-and-forth with her about the fate of that promised relationship. And for good measure, a live version of one of the final Ronettes recordings, “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine.” She belts and reveals the soft side of the original bad girl of rock in this recording, and it’s just as good as the original.


Things get better when we finally hear what “Don’t Worry Baby” sounds like under her guiding hand, and it’s pop music nirvana. She Talks to Rainbows version will never rival what might have been if Phil Spector got to produce “Don’t Worry Baby” in the same illustrious manner as “Baby, I Love You” or “I Wonder,” but goddamn does it still reach stratospheric heights. Chalk that up not only to power of Brian Wilson’s own musical genius, but Ronnie’s way with a lyric that is both innocently romantic but bubbling under with erotic promise and potential waiting to get out.


Yet it’s the most somber moment of the EP that comes out the best. For all of her incredible vocal work in rave-ups (“Do I Love You?”) and flirtations (“(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”), Ronnie Spector knows how to sell you on a heartbreaking ballad. Think of how wistful and downright pleading she sounds on “Walking in the Rain.” Now listen to her version of “You Can’t Put Yours Arms Around a Memory.” She approaches that song with the knowledge of someone who has been knocked down, battle scarred, and still somehow managed to claw their way back up. In a career filled with undeniably great and iconic vocal performances, “You Can’t Put Yours Arms Around a Memory” belongs in the conversation for one of her greatest achievements.


She Talks to Rainbows is the finest hour (actually, about twenty minutes but you know what I mean) of Ronnie Spector’s solo career. Her voice still retains its allure and punch, and Joey Ramone was right when he said she sounds “now.” Her voice is singular and unique, and this EP highlights why she’s one of our living legends.  


DOWNLOAD: “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”   

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A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 26 December 2017 06:29 (A review of A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector)

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is the sound of the super-producer taking his trademark “Wall of Sound” style and smashing beloved Christmas carols into it. “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” now have more in common with “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “He’s a Rebel” than they do the traditional yuletide aesthetic. Spector brings his best talent to provide the center for all of this ornamentation (ha!), and what emerges is not only the greatest holiday album ever recorded, but also one of the all-time greatest pop albums.


Nostalgia permeates the songs here, and Spector’s trademark operatic tendencies and grandeur only underscore these traits. Whether it is LaLa Brooks’ teenaged vocals adding a childlike glee to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or Bob B. Soxx’s impassioned statements on “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Spector gets some of the best emotional readings any of these songs have ever received. Ronnie Spector’s innately sensual voice zaps the innocence out of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” but her carnality adds a knowing wink to the construct of the song that makes it sound and feel fresh.


His maximalist tendencies also make these songs play like rock and roll riots throughout. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a rave-up that would sound right at home sandwiched in-between “Then He Kissed Me” and “I Wonder” on a Crystals album. It’s the sound of a group of young girls turning a fairy tale promise into a barn burner and an excuse to dance in the snow. Same goes for “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” where their breathlessly girlish voices cascade over a beat made of pounding drums, horns, and clanking percussion.  


While Ronnie Spector does melt “Frosty the Snowman” through the sheer force of her sexuality, it’s “Sleigh Ride” that’s the biggest rocker on the album. Between the sound effects, the background chants of  “ring-a-ling-a-ling ding-dong-ding,” Ronnie’s sex kitten invitation, and a swirling production that threatens to spiral off into chaos before eventually succumbing at the very end, “Sleigh Ride” would be the highlight of just about any other album. Yet it has to settle for merely being second best here.


Darlene Love is the true MVP of this album, given her four solo appearances and background vocal work with Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and there’s no stopping her. She’s playful on the surreal “Marshmallow World,” dreamy on “White Christmas,” and a one-woman choir on “Winter Wonderland” as Spector layers her vocals on top of each other. Nothing beats “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the lone original song on this album and an emotional tour de force. In what is quite possibly the strongest vocal performance of her esteemed career, Love belts, yearns, and pours her heart and soul out all across “Christmas.” Her passion is enough to cause a blizzard during a Texas summer.


If there is one misstep on the album, it’s quite possibly the ending coda. Phil Spector speaks a few words of thanks before the entire recording artists harmonize a few lines of “Silent Night.” It’s over just as quickly as it starts and the harmonized vocals are heavenly, but Spector’s spoken word segment is a bit distracting. It doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the album in any major way.


It isn’t the season until I listen to A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector at least once, typically more than that. More so than just about any individual album, A Christmas Gift for You is the purest distillation of Spector’s genius. Although Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica comes closest to not only rivaling it in sheer pop spectacle and power, but in toppling it for supremacy. (The box set Back to Mono (1958 – 1969) is an entirely separate story as that’s three discs of his best and brightest singles all in one collection, and this is included in that set anyway.) It’s just one hell of a delightful piece of pop music at its greatest, and an absolutely essential and vital must-own album.


DOWNLOAD: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

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You Make It Feel Like Christmas

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 December 2017 07:58 (A review of You Make It Feel Like Christmas)

If you had asked me what I thought a potential Gwen Stefani Christmas album would sound like, I’d probably respond with something along the lines of the bratty New Wave of the Waitresses song “Christmas Wrapping,” maybe the synthpop of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (more on that song later), or the alternative rock of No Doubt’s cover of “Oi the World.” I wouldn’t expect an album of 50s doo-wop and 60s girl group pop. But it’s a pleasant surprise how well her quirky voice can wrap around these sounds, for the most part.


“Jingle Bells” sets us off, and it’s a propulsive blast of old school pop and rock sounds with Stefani’s trademark vibrato riding the waves of the song wonderfully. It’s colorful, it’s quirky, it’s fun, and it sounds like Stefani is as energized here as she was on This Is What the Truth Feels Like. It’s fun to hear her unique voice deliver traditional songs like “White Christmas” or “Let It Snow.” She brings a certain spunk and animated character to them.


Yet the limits of her voice show in “Silent Night,” a song she just doesn’t have the range for. She sounds like she’s pushing hard for some of the bigger, higher notes, and maybe this one should’ve been left on the chopping block in favor of something like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” or “Blue Christmas.”


While her version of “Santa Baby” can’t hold a candle to Eartha Kitt’s original, it’s still miles better than several other covers. I’m looking at you Madonna! Stefani’s voice has a certain quality that’s Betty Boop-ish at times, and it’s deployed on this song to strong effect. It’s a fun bit of kitsch, and you can practically conjure up a music video for it with Stefani in some glittery naughty Mrs. Claus outfit done up like a pinup girl.


The real surprise of the covers is “Last Christmas.” No mournful synthpop here, instead it sounds like a song the Shirelles might have recorded. It’s a stellar cover where Stefani’s penchant for breakup melodramatics gets to sparkle, and she makes a meal out of it. She mentioned A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector as an influence on the album, and that sound is most apparent here with the layers of background vocals, instruments, and hint of melancholy.


The other half of the album is original material, with the treacle of “When I Was a Little Girl” and love song “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes Before” being standouts for the wrong reasons. Many Christmas songs are love songs of joy or heartache wrapped up in yuletide garnishes, but these songs have little to nothing to do with the season. A much better example of the combination of Christmas/love song is “My Gift Is You,” which sounds a bit like “Stand By Me” and proclaims the greatest gift isn’t anything material but the love she’s found with her paramour.


Speaking of him, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” is a sweet little love song that bounces and grooves like a Motown banger. While “Christmas Eve” may be the best of the original songs, as Stefani digs deep into her Catholic upbringing to craft a song that sounds at once like a pop ballad and a hymnal. It’s gorgeous, highly dramatic, and filled with just a hint of sadness and nostalgia that creeps in around this time for all the colored lights and joyful noise. You Make It Feel Like Christmas is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s a strong, pleasant listen overall.


DOWNLOAD: “Last Christmas”

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Merry from Lena

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 December 2017 07:22 (A review of Merry From Lena)

Not quite standard yuletide fare but rather a lounge club act centered on the Christmas spirit, Merry from Lena zips and swings with Lena Horne’s trademark sultry and jazzy vocals and bits of adult-oriented humor to give it plenty of flavor. “Jingle All the Way,” a reworking of “Jingle Bells,” sets the tone for the rest of the record, and it’s snappy and grooves along with a ring-a-ting vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place among the Rat Pack. It’s in these moments that Merry from Lena springs to life the most.


Listen to how punctuated and emphatic a sultry invitation she makes out of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” She swings along on the groove and delivers well known lines like “I brought some corn for popping” in completely fresh and engaging ways. It sounds like a cozy party with cocktails, humor, and maybe something more under her direction.


Then there’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which she mostly plays straight until dropping this joke: “I think he had a problem. I think he probably liked a little nip once in a while.” Her tongue is firmly planted in her cheek, and zips through the song as if it’s a riot of improbability and drunk humor. You can practically hear the wink she gives while delivering that opening joke and a few other phrase readings.


Much of Merry from Lena is made up of traditional ballads, these gives straight dramatic interpretations. Horne was one of our greatest vocal storytellers, able to build up a song’s interior life and dramatics through phrasing, pauses, and belts. “Silent Night” is gorgeous and melodramatic, “The Christmas Song” is unbearably sophisticated, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” quakes with vulnerability and the sadness baked into the song.


Some of the album is just a pleasing showcase for her vocal styling, “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and a extra-swinging version of “What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve” are all pleasing if not exactly redefining. They play out indistinguishable as arrangements from numerous other versions with only Horne’s vocals being the thing that makes identifiable. Still, Merry from Lena is an enjoyable and fun trip through the season. And she manages to make “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” into a hepcat tune, not too shabby.


DOWNLOAD: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

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Posted : 8 months, 1 week ago on 8 December 2017 08:51 (A review of Compulsion)

The true crime story of Leopold and Loeb is something that continues to entrance audiences with its layers of complicated motivations and deviant behavior, add in a dash of homosexuality and Nietzschian ideology and the whole thing practically comes gift wrapped with tabloid glamour. The best known film inspired by the true story was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a grand artistic experiment that finds it stylistic flourishes hampering its merits as a film, but this one may be the best film made out of the case.


Compulsion dives us into the minds of its two killers, affluent prodigies who commit their crime simply to prove that they can and that they’re somehow superior to everyone else around them, but primarily situates itself into Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner. Stockwell is a revelation here, and Compulsion provides him with the first of many great roles in his adult career (in just a few years he’d dazzle once again in Long Day’s Journey Into Night alongside heavyweights Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards.) We spend a great deal of the first half of the film with Judd, and Bradford Dillman’s Arthur Straus to a lesser extent, as the aftermath of the murder and the impending criminal investigation is circling ever closer.


It is here that Stockwell gives us a wide-ranging performance as Judd transforms from snotty intellectual into fragile, scared young man. It’s a part that could easily lend itself towards big emotions and overplayed scenes, yet Stockwell withholds at all times. He finds the truth of the character and material, including playing the latent homoeroticism as fact even when the script is clearly merely flirting in that direction. You really believe that Stockwell is in love with Dillman, and how frightened he is once their “perfect” crime slowly dissolves under closer scrutiny and their mistakes.


Then the second half switches to a court room drama and away from the twisted, well, not quite a love story of the first half. Orson Welles makes a grand entrance as their lawyer and the film effectively becomes his showcase. The second half is actually uniformly stronger than the first, and Welles provides the second essential ingredient to the launching the film into stronger territory. Welles, for his part, thought that he would be given directorial efforts, and it was, frankly, a better idea to have him do both. Richard Fleischer’s work is fine if unremarkable, but Welles could liven up any type of genre or setting with his incomparable artistry. Compulsion could have been an unheralded classic under Welles instead of a remarkably solid lesser known entity.

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Panama Hattie

Posted : 8 months, 1 week ago on 8 December 2017 07:33 (A review of Panama Hattie)

This one feels like a second-tier throwaway from MGM’s infamous Arthur Freed unit. Panama Hattie is only as good and entertaining as any individual scene in the movie, and some of it is truly uninspired or downright dumb. I’m thinking of just about any of the scenes with a precocious Jackie Horner and several scenes with a mugging trio of sailors (Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Ben Blue) as particular low points. While Ann Sothern is a brassy delight throughout, giving her all and a charismatic movie star-style performance no matter how questionable the material. The undeniable highlight of the film is “The Spring,” a musical sequence that brings together Lena Horne’s vocals, the Berry Brothers dancing, and Vincente Minnelli’s staging. It’s an isolated moment of solid gold in an otherwise tepid, uneven film.

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The Towering Inferno

Posted : 8 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 November 2017 05:21 (A review of The Towering Inferno)

The all-star disaster epics of the 1970s were a strange little time capsule, as if the ethical quagmires and pervasive paranoia of the era could only be expressed in blockbusters that trapped a bunch of people in an isolated spot and made sure to shockingly kill off several of the big names every so often. The super-producer of these films was Irwin Allen, and fresh off of throwing a group of stars in a capsized cruise ship in camp classic The Poseidon Adventure, he returns to the template with his “more is better” magnum opus, The Towering Inferno.


Some films are great because of the strength of their plots, their visuals, their acting, or some combination of all of the above. But there’s another group of films that are very good-to-great, and those are the films that are pure entertainment. The Towering Inferno is an expertly made piece of entertainment. A bit too long at three hours, but it still provides a movie that enraptures you with its pounding sense of dread and claustrophobic anti-camp gravitas.


It’s also just a great excuse to watch Paul Newman and Steve McQueen size each other up, old vets like William Holden, Fred Astaire, and Jennifer Jones add gravity to the proceedings, and starlets like Faye Dunaway suffer elegantly in beautiful gowns. We often go to the movies to watch beautiful, charismatic people romance each other, escape from danger, or behave badly, and The Towering Inferno checks all of those boxes. If nothing else, it’s also a underscoring of the idea that a well-known formula executed with conviction and style will always turn up a winner.


There’s a bit of melodrama punctuated by very competent and still thrilling special effects work in its action scenes. You genuinely care about a majority of these characters, either rooting for them to escape or happy to see them meet their demise. While Newman and McQueen are the two leads, and both of them are great in their alternate takes on gruff masculine heroism and sexy, sweaty, it’s the performances of Astaire and Jones that walked away with all of the awards love.


Jones, in her final role, is not a surprise, she was an awards darling during her halcyon days, and she gets a solid little character to play here. She engages in a romance with Astaire, is selflessly heroic and maternally caring while rescuing two kids with Newman, and gets to do some stunt-work before her shocking death by falling out of a broken elevator window. But Astaire as a lovable grifter with a knockout final scene does a sneaky stealing of several scenes, yet his Oscar nomination still feels slightly like a “Lifetime Achievement” concession.


Part of the terror of The Towering Inferno is how brutally realistic it can feel to be trapped inside of a burning skyscraper. Part of this success is in how this is a disaster movie with plenty of real world parallels and enough realistic special effects work to unnerve. Yet it’s a tightly controlled narrative with predictable beats, the mid-section of the film does seem to repeat far too much, and a sprinkling of shocks to make you sit up and take notice. That miniature work holds up well, as does the real sense that these are the actual stars dangerously close to the uncontrollable (and hungry) flames. The fires of this film demand a sacrifice (or several) for man’s hubris.   

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