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Posted : 3 days, 10 hours ago on 7 December 2018 08:20 (A review of Trolls)

Does any current studio adhere harder to a predetermined formula more than DreamWorks Animation? From the moment Trolls starts to build its world it’s incredibly obvious how the players will change, where the pieces will move around, and how it’ll wrap up. There’ll be an avalanche of pop culture references hammered in, a veritable example of square peg into a round hole, and a grab-bag of celebrity voice acting. Oh, and don’t forget that we need to send the audience out on a big dance party!


You know, for a film that features a naked character covered in glitter (and yes, he frequently farts glitter), Trolls does have a few bright spots. Namely, there’s a pleasing scrapbook and tactile quality to the design of the film. There’s a lot of creatures made up of yarn, buttons, and threads, and moments, far too intermittent, where the film transitions into a scrapbook-like play. It’s these few moments where a better, more adventurous Trolls movie pokes out.


It’s quickly subsumed by a soundtrack that’s filled with mashups and kid-friendly covers of pop tunes. Why is DreamWorks so obsessed with repurposing pop songs as anthems? The only time this really works in Trolls is in a quiet, emotional moment when our grumpy character sings to a crestfallen sunny one. That song, “True Colors,” is already an emotionally packed song, and one that is just vague enough to work in a variety of contexts and moods.


Notice that I haven’t talked about the script for Trolls yet, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s the thinnest gruel, a combination of hero’s journey, love story, and musical adventure that’s cliché from the word go. Will the sunny character learn the value of other emotions? You bet. Will the grumpy one regain his vibrancy after exposing his Tragic Backstory™ and joining up with the sunny one? Absolutely. Will the villains house a sympathetic character that helps our heroes and works through her own emotional arch? Yep, got that too.


Calling Trolls a cliché feels somehow an insult to clichés. Trolls is straight-up rolled off of the assembly line, and super-engineered to entertain the tots and sell a ton of merchandise. DreamWorks has franchising in mind here, and they’ve barely bothered to conceal that aim. They made a movie with just enough personality to guarantee solid box office returns, a spinoff tv show, and a sequel (or three).

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Tarzan & Jane

Posted : 3 days, 10 hours ago on 7 December 2018 08:20 (A review of Tarzan & Jane)

Nothing destroyed the brand integrity quite like the unnecessary Disney direct-to-video sequel market. Many of them over-explain things that weren’t a mystery from the original film, or continue a story that felt self-contained and complete already. Then there’s the others like Tarzan & Jane that are basically three or more episodes of their spinoff shows jammed together with a loose framing device, and these are no better.


Some of these Disney spinoff shows had merit, Aladdin was a ton of fun and Hercules has its fans, but the movies that either acted as springboards or spliced together individual stories frequently don’t work. It’s not just the woefully limited budgets that leave the characters looking “off,” but it’s the lack of a coherent story or reason for the films to exist in general outside of brand recognition.


There’s profits to be had, so damn what made the original film work!


Tarzan & Jane picks up where the original film ended with the couple happily married and coming up on their one-year anniversary. Each episode is a glimpse of Jane’s Britain encroaching on Tarzan’s jungle life and friends. You ever wanted to watch Tarzan become gentrified, then this is the direct-to-video film for you!


Long gone is the sense of danger, the thrill of watching Tarzan swing through the trees, but they kept the awkward Phil Collins songs and added in Mandy Moore, for reasons. I think that’s a basic summary of what’s wrong with this film – it keeps the things that were awkward from the original film and dilutes the strengths. It’s best to leave Tarzan & Jane alone in the jungle.

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Merry Christmas

Posted : 4 days, 10 hours ago on 6 December 2018 08:38 (A review of Merry Christmas)

I may prefer my Christmas music of the distinctively secular kind, and I may generally find the overly reverent standards to be more funereal than celebratory, but I know a solid holiday album when I hear one. Mariah Carey’s pop-friendly R&B-lite has never directly appealed to me, but like any good gay boy worth his wait in diva worship I’ve appreciated a few songs over the years. One of them would be the justifiably famous original she launched into the canon of yuletide classics, where it’s always sounded perfectly at home since its debut.


It doesn’t hurt that Carey keeps the guest rappers, the displays of trend-chasing, and the strange need to function as a distracted disco chanteuse away throughout. She merely plants her feet squarely on the ground, surrounds herself with live instrumentation and a healthy dose of gospel choir backing, and belts towards the heavens. If this isn’t her best collection of vocal performances, then I’m sure one of her lambs would agree that it’s towards the top of the list.


Well, for the most part.


(Screaming) Mimi can’t help herself when it comes to “Joy to the World.” She marries the traditional to the Three Dog Night beat, throws in a bit of club swagger, and over sings like it’s last call at the drag bar and the tips are running low. Then there’s the way that her original songs, you know the ones not named “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” just limp along as ballads whose sole existence to buckle under the weight of Carey’s octave-scaling and vocal tics. “Jesus Born on This Day” even throws in a children’s choir for extra treacle and sogginess. It’s the kind of holiday music that makes an Scrooge out of you.


She’s much better ripping arrangements and material from Phil Spector’s holiday playbook. Not only does she cover Darlene Love’s immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but takes a spin on the Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” She sounds positively buoyant and confident on these songs. “Santa Claus,” in particular, features some playful vocal choices that are quite fetching.


It’s when Carey plays it old school that the album soars. Think of how the cover places her as a chaste pinup, and then listen to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” That one wouldn’t sound out of place on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. In fact, one of her music videos for it had her playing Ronnie Spector, and one can easily imagine Ronnie’s voice belting the lovelorn lyrics with gusto. It’s no surprise this song has become a staple as it sounds like it was plopped out of the glut of Christmas songs from the 50s/60s.


When Carey focuses on playing gospel belter or girl group pop princess that Merry Christmas soars. Sure, there’s too many ballads and the Christian material gets a little bit much after a while, but there’s still plenty to recommend here. It’s a reminder of what a gift Carey’s voice once was. Time and overuse may have weakened some of its power, but listen to her tame “Silent Night” or “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child” and bow before a titan. Her love for the material shines through, but Merry Christmas remains a testament to the religious power and mystery of Carey’s golden throat.  


DOWNLOAD: “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

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A Star Is Born

Posted : 1 week, 1 day ago on 3 December 2018 03:28 (A review of A Star Is Born)

Color me surprised at this fourth (fifth if you count 1932’s What Price Hollwood?) dip into the well has produced such an enjoyable version. Of course, it’s immediate predecessor was the property’s nadir, Barbra Streisand’s onerous 1976 version, so nearly anything would’ve registered as an improvement. But 2018’s version of A Star Is Born isn’t just an improvement, it’s a well-made romantic melodrama that’s second only to Judy Garland’s immortal 1954 version.


Everyone knows the barebones of this story: fading star, either a movie star or a singer, meets undiscovered girl talent, either aspiring actress or singer, and champions her career. They fall in love, and she remains loyal to him as his self-destruction threatens to destroy her nascent career in addition to his crumbling one. The final moments, if done right, are tearjerkers of the highest order as the fading star commits suicide and the ingénue pays tribute as a moment of personal and artistic triumph overcoming her sorrow. Roll the end credits.


This version of A Star Is Born proves how much wiggle room there can be between those signposts. Much like the 1976 version, our doomed romantic pair are musicians. He’s a country/blues rocker, and she’s a budding pop star in the making. It makes sense to keep this story change from the prior film as the mystique of movie stars crumbled with the passing of the studio era. There’s no longer a large publicity department churning out fictional backstories on its stable of stars, remaking them into totems and cinematic idols, but the music industry still allows for pop stars to create artificial personas to hide behind.


Speaking of, one of the genius moves this film makes was to cast Lady Gaga as the aspiring pop starlet. Gaga’s exactly the kind of persona-heavy pop star I’m talking about. Who is the real person behind the construct, and does it matter? Well, A Star Is Born has moments of doubt or criticism that feel lifted from her time spent slumming away in dive bars finessing her kooky outfits and shiny dance-pop. Whether or not they’re directly lifted is immaterial, they feel real and Gaga plays them with an honesty and naked emotional candor that’s quite refreshing.


It’s not just that Gaga’s appearance lends the film a kind of honesty that the presence of an actress who can sing wouldn’t, but that we’re familiar enough with her as a construct that it’s revelatory to watch the real human being underneath it all. Gaga’s performance is candid, truthful, and completely free of artifice. There’s honest to god quaking, aching vulnerability that’s endearing. You root for her to succeed, you’re invested in her triumphs, and you understand why she sticks it out with this man that’s a liability to her professional and personal life at numerous points.


Yet A Star Is Born 2018 differs from its predecessors in a highly noticeable way. Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland’s versions gave the two roles near equal footing even if the female lead got just a touch more sympathy and screen time, and the Streisand version orbited around its star to the occasional detriment of everything else. This version stacks the audience sympathy, understanding, and development in favor of Bradley Cooper’s doomed rock star with Gaga routinely playing second fiddle. This A Star Is Born is more of his story then it is hers or theirs.


Maybe the fact that Cooper co-wrote, directed, and starred in it has something to do with that, or maybe it’s that there’s such a strong focus on the trauma, addiction, recovery, and mental illness of his rock star that Gaga’s rapid ascent up the career ladder couldn’t help but fade away. Cooper’s performance is an absolute marvel. The choice to end the film with Gaga singing the love song he wrote for her only for it to dissolve to a happy time of them goofing around the piano and figuring it out is a smart one. It ends the film on a note of creative expression and romance and differentiates it from the weepy downbeats that end the prior films. I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, but it’s a more emotionally complex one than the others.


It’s Sam Elliott’s last minute speech, the one about how there only being a few notes between an octave and it’s how you play them that matters, that summarizes the film, and works as an argument for it. If we can sit through endless remakes of other properties, Robin Hood and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as very recent examples, then surely we can afford space for another spin on this story. Like any other long running and heavily adapted property, some versions are better than others, so props to Cooper for making what is easily the second best. It’s a well-worn story told with grit, humor, romance, music, and tremendous empathy. I’m shocked at its greatness just as much as you are.   

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Posted : 1 week, 1 day ago on 3 December 2018 03:28 (A review of Masterminds (2016))

I’m going to assume that the true story was just a kernel here. A mere springboard for its talented ensemble to riff and develop a series of improbable characters and situations, but that’s also the problem with Masterminds. Too much anarchy and lunacy in service of nothing but those exact elements becomes numbing. For comedy to work there has to be a grounding element, a truth and goal at work to keep the hijinks from twisting away into madness for madness sake. I think you see where I’m going with this.


Masterminds present no recognizably human characters or emotions aside from Kristin Wiig, who often appears to be acting in another, better movie entirely. In small supporting parts this can work, look at Kate McKinnon’s aggressively committed near-android of a spurned ex, but when so many of the characters present as these caricatures it begins to drown itself out in a sea of mugging, scene-stealing, and desperation.


This is a reoccurring issue with Jared Hess’ work, the most famous of which is Napoleon Dynamite, a hangout film that presents a time warp setting and no characters that resemble a functional, normal person that’s gained  a cult following. Hess lets his cast rapid-fire jokes at the screen, and by sheer volume of material some of these land. For every DOA reoccurring joke involving misfiring guns, obsession with butt cracks, and wasting Leslie Jones (a crime, I say!), there’s the sheer weirdness of McKinnon, Wiig’s discomfort with a kiss from Zach Galifianakis wearing a sleek blond wig and snake eye contacts, or Jason Sudeikis’ overly emotional hitman.


In the end Masterminds evens out to being fine. The kind of fare you watch on a bored evening at home while sorting through Netflix and thinking “this sounds fine.” A cast this good deserves better, though.

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Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever

Posted : 1 week, 1 day ago on 3 December 2018 03:25 (A review of Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Ever)

For me it’s not the season until I hear A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, namely for the Ronettes songs and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” I fully admit to loving rock and roll Christmas music. Nothing fills me with the joy of the season quite like hearing Ronnie Spector making Frosty melt, so I’m down to listen to whatever holiday music she makes.


Having said that, Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever is a bit thin on quality material, which is a shame since it’s a five-song EP. There isn’t much room for subpar material on a twenty minute record, and she’s released better EPs before, She Talks to Rainbows and Something’s Gonna Happen, so it’s not like it’s impossible. The problem is that Spector’s clearly hammy it up on material that’s beneath her.


“My Christmas Wish” is a cutesy retro pop/rock opener, and it’s perfect for her showgirl chutzpah. Then we get to the next two songs: “It’s the Time (Happy Holidays)” and “Light One Candle.” The first is a Latin pop number that doesn’t vibe with Spector’s voice, and only stands out for an adorable spoken word moment where she shares a precious childhood memory. No, I won’t repeat it because you need to discover that for yourself. “Light One Candle” is exactly the kind of heavily sentimental, overly drippy song that makes people dislike Christmas music.


The last two songs are much better. “Best Christmas Ever” is cheesy pop/rock that swings like 50s pastiche. It’s fun, it’s junk food for your ear, it’s kinda perfect for her. Then we end with “It’s Christmas Once Again.” Once again, Spector provides an autobiographical spoken word memory, and the surrounding song is tailor-made for her vocal style. The original bad girl of rock has always had a soft, gooey center, and this song plays into that.


Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever ends up being about average. Her voice sounds right at home on alternative rock, so imagine if she’d covered something like the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” or the Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” Then again, there’s a plethora of 50s and 60s Christmas tunes she could’ve done: “Little Saint Nick,” “Blue Christmas,” “Run, Run Rudolph,” “Jingle Bell Rock.” Hell, I saw her perform “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” as part of her encore and a studio version of that would be cool. Oh, what might have been.


DOWNLOAD: “It’s Christmas Once Again”

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Paint Another Picture

Posted : 1 week, 1 day ago on 3 December 2018 03:24 (A review of Paint Another Picture)

Is it shocking to learn that Darlene Love never recorded a solo album until 1988? Yes and no, honestly, as Love came to prominence during the singles era when 45s ruled all, and it wasn’t until later that the LP became the thing. It’s also important to remember that she was primarily tied to Phil Spector during those years, and he had a jaundiced view on the LP, dubbing a few hit singles and some filler.


So how’d her first solo outing turn out? Not too bad, even if the 80s production values date some of the material. Her voice is as powerful as ever here, obtaining a grit and emotive power that can be chalked up to age, experience, and technique. Her artistic range remains as elastic as ever as Paint Another Picture zips between pop, AOR, and a haunting gospel finale.


Sure, there’s nothing here that can compare to the best bits found on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love, especially a generic update of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” but there’s still a solid album here. Love makes songs like “Paint Another Picture” and “I’ve Never Been the Same” quake with the feeling she gives them and the church-soaked power in her vocals. That’s why I can’t get her version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” out of my mind. Love grew up singing in a gospel choir, and she knows her way around a song like this. Yet her version still shakes the rafters with her emotional rendering and restrained delivery. It strips away the 80s sheen and leaves you with something very real. That’s why she’s one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll.


DOWNLOAD: “You’ll Never Walk Alone

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Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 29 November 2018 10:00 (A review of Paddington)

If you see the words “live action Paddington movie” and immediately go into a dark place, I get that. Between the preponderance of fairy tale blockbusters, needlessly snarky adaptations, or ones that pull and stretch the material beyond recognition, adapting beloved children’s books and stories hasn’t been on the hottest streak as of late. For every Coraline there’s about five Cat in the Hat or Garfield: The Movie. So I completely understand that chilling feeling slowly moving down your spine and settling into your stomach.


But here’s the very good news: Paddington is far more a Coraline then it is a Cat in the Hat. It’s a film of tremendous whimsy, lacking in guile, and populated by kooky, charming characters that exhibit tremendous layers, even our villain is given a backstory that explains her profession and obsession with Paddington. It’s also really funny, has great special effects work, and has a stellar vocal performance from Ben Whishaw in the lead role.


This is after all a film where a talking bear can stand in the middle of a crowded railway station and be greeted with indifference from many of the urban denizens. The film takes it as a given that there’s an element of magical realism at play with children’s literature, and it never goes to great lengths to explain away how and why Paddington can talk. His species of bear can talk and learned English thanks to an explorer several decades back, that’s it, thank god for simplicity. It’s here that the filmmakers and Paddington’s overwhelming sincerity dovetail – Paddington isn’t just a fish-out-of-water story, but one of found families, kindness, and providing emotional support.


Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of daring or ample shenanigans, this is a children’s film after all. Many of them are quite funny, a marmalade sandwich acting as a brick through bureaucracy, Paddington mistaking toothbrushes for ear cleaners, or his accidental flooding of a bathroom are all jubilant, quirky little moments that further the narrative, display his naivety, or merely exist to make you smile. Sometimes they manage to capture all three at once, and that’s the great joy of the film.


It helps that actors as strong as Hugh Bonneville as fuddy-duddy dad, Nicole Kidman as our somewhat-sympathetic villain, Julie Walters as eccentric maid, and Jim Broadbent as an immigrant bringing a tremendous amount of pathos to his scenes breathe life into the film. They’re all clearly enjoying what they’re doing, and that sense of fun and enjoyment translates through the screen to you. That’s no easy feat.


Yet it’s Sally Hawkins as the matriarch that sees magic and adventure everywhere that provides a solid human face for us. Hawkins appears to be making a habit lately of playing women adopting empathetic creatures, and her loopy mother is a ton of fun. She’s the empathetic center of Paddington, the human face that allows us to find the beating heart of the talking bear. We love him as much as she does by the end.


It’s that beating heart at the center of Paddington that makes it all so perfect. There’s humor, warmth, and a refreshing gentleness to be found here, and I’m all for it. Less snark and more overly polite talking bears wearing red hats and blue coats, please.

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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 29 November 2018 09:08 (A review of Beauty and the Beast (2014))

Hey, have you ever wanted to watch a version of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale that added in unnecessary amounts of CGI, weird side stories involving fortune tellers, and tonally dissonant cutesy animals scurrying about the castle? If so, then have I got the monstrosity for you! A completely forgettable version that adds more tangents and garnishes to a sturdy tale that renders the whole thing strangely muted, and makes Disney’s recent live-action version look like Cocteau’s by comparison.


Why is making a movie of this so damn hard?


Christophe Gans’ version is overburdened with sumptuous imagery that flirts with erotic intensity or perhaps fevered dream logic, but completely lacks the follow-through on either of those points. Then we get a brand new tragic backstory to explain Beast’s transformation and the magic emanating from his castle, and a Beauty that mainly involves its lead actress heaving her breasts and randomly warm-up to her suitor/capture without any budding romance to make the transition clear.


Gans’ Beauty is quite literally sold into sexual slavery to transform the fortunes of her family, specifically the patriarch. Her eventual declaration of love for the Beast must happen, but there’s been no sequences displaying a softening of their relationship, a growth in the Beast away from child-like id into maturity, or a sexual awakening within Beauty. It arrives at the exact point in the story when it must, but it doesn’t have the same sweetness of Disney’s animated classic or the quiet, aching poetry of Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece. Like much of the film, it just happens and exists because the nature of the story demands it as such.


Even worse is the lack of chemistry between Beauty and Beast. How to cast Vincent Cassel, an actor of volcanic sexual dynamism, and manage to make him limp, awkward, and unattractive is a feat, gross incompetence, or both. Léa Seydoux manages to make Beauty something of a presence, but it’s hard to really gage given how little she’s truly asked to do. You watch them in other films and feel a combustible sexual ferocity from each of them, but it’s not here. Perhaps all of the pageantry rendered them a little out to sea?


The worst offense is how hard Gans is clearly working to create something that looks and feels magical, yet there’s nothing grounding it or making it feel like an extension of the characters. Beast’s castle is a series of lovely sets that don’t feel like a coherent vision. The best versions of this story generate a palpably real, magical setting that is as much a reflection of the Beast’s psyche as it is a place for magical occurrences. It feels inevitable that twisted statues ornamenting the property would come alive and attack the interlopers. There’s been a glut of fairy tale blockbusters, effectively trying to transform the Grimms into Tolkein and often failing, and this Beauty and the Beast falls victim to that tendency.


All this did is made me feel wistful and depressed that Guillermo del Toro’s proposed version will never see the light of day.   

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Black Christmas

Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 29 November 2018 08:26 (A review of Black Christmas)

Director Bob Clark seems preoccupied with the yuletide as his two most beloved creations, this film and A Christmas Story, examine the holiday through vastly different prisms. A Christmas Story is delightful as it alternates between the saccharine undertones of nostalgia and spiky bits of humor, yet it’s an understandable piece of pop culture ephemera for the seasonal period. Black Christmas, by stark contrast, is equally delightful but something of an antidote/tonic to the never-ending sweetness of holiday-themed products. Black Christmas is appropriately titled as the emphasis is very much on darkness, in humor and subject matter, as the film is an early stage of the slasher genre.


Black Christmas is a lean, mean little killing machine, even if the actual body count is quite small in comparison to most of its brethren. It’s damn propulsive in its telling of its story. From the disorientating and disturbing POV of the killer in the opening scene to the ambiguous ending, Black Christmas spends as little time as possible on anything too distracting from its main thrust.


Don’t misunderstand me, while the black humor of the film is quite fetching as it provides momentary reprise from the ever escalating tension, there’s a few times when the jokes go on too long. A game Margot Kidder plays the sorority’s resident bad girl, she’s eternally smoking, drinking, and loudly vulgar, and she’s clearly game for the part. Kidder finds the absurdity and humor in a scene involving her saying “fellatio” repeatedly to a clearly idiotic police officer that doesn’t get the joke, but the joke just keeps going and going to the point where it becomes distracting. You feel like you’ve wandered into Porky’s, another Clark film, as opposed to a “serial killer on the loose in a near-empty sorority over Christmas” one.


It’s better when we circle back and really develop the characters and their setting. There’s the house mother that hides booze all around, the vamp, the neurotic, the chirpy virgin, and our final girl. While all of them occupy well-known horror film “types,” Clark allows them to develop into idiosyncratic personalities with unexpected depth. Not only that, but Clark allows his vamp to last until the very end whereas another filmmaker would kill her off first, make the virgin the final girl, and definitely kill off the one that wanted an abortion. For the record, our final girl here is the one that wants the abortion, and it’s a storyline that’s refreshingly honest, direct, and a lack of judgment about her wants and needs.


Doesn’t hurt that Clark has assembled a solid little ragtag group of actors, including Kidder, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon, Marian Waldman, and Olivia Hussey as our final girl. She’s long way from the dewy Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, but she’s independent, smart, and level-headed. Hussey makes for a perfect horror heroine, yet it feels somehow appropriate that her final fate remains somewhat uncertain.


What do I mean? I mean much like another holiday-themed slasher classic, Halloween, Black Christmas ends not with a declarative statement but with a more terrifying, suggestive note of ambiguity. Our heroine is out cold, the police are all around the house, but the phone starts to ring again and the attic door is seen opening again, so maybe it wasn’t who we thought it was all along. What’s to become of her? We don’t know. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you and yours, indeed.

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