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Friday, April 23, 2004
Thoughts upon rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer

For the last few months, I've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, starting from the very beginning of season 1 (as of last night, I've watched through season 3, episode 5). I believe I've mentioned before that Buffy was a show that I initially started watching because a roommate in DC was a Buffy fanatic and I had nothing better to do. Eventually (as in shortly after the start of season 2), the show got it's hooks into me and I found myself watching (and taping) it after I moved out of that apartment.

One thing that has struck me on what I thought was a repeat viewing for me, is that and I'm surprised how many episodes from the early seasons I either don't remember or I missed altogether. I know that I missed a lot of the latter half of seasons 5 and 6, but I honestly thought I'd seen most of the episodes from the early seasons. And even those episodes that I do remember, I only remember in broad strokes (compared with The X-Files, which I can identify almost any episode and what happens in it within the first few minutes).

Watching them again (at the rate of about one episode per day) has also reminded me how much better the show was during the first few seasons, while the gang was still in high school. Mrs. Coffee Shop finally understands why I liked the show (the only season she had watched with me previously was 7, the final season), and appreciates the witty dialogue and the not exactly subtle, but at least interesting, ways in which the show uses monsters, demons and ghouls as metaphors for the trials of growing up. We'll see how I feel when we get to the later seasons, but right now I'm pretty sure the show lost it's way (excepting a few standout episodes) when it shifted away from the metaphors for growing up to simple monster fighting, with the once per season episode in which Buffy loses faith in herself and her abilities.

Of course, it's fun to note the plot and character developments that were mapped out from the beginning, and those plot points which come up later, but clearly hadn't been thought through entirely when they first appeared. Though I'm not going to do an episode by episode review like Tegan has been doing with Angel season 1 over at Bloggity, I'd like to take a moment to highlight a few of the more interesting things I've noticed. SPOILERS AHEAD, so consider yourself warned:

* Darla was one of the Master's original henchpeople in season 1. She was dusted by Buffy about midway through the season (after revealing that she sired Angel and they used to have a thing). By the time she showed up in Angel, I had completely forgotten about her being dusted, so I'm curious to see how they explained her return.

* Hints are dropped throughout season 2 that Principal Snyder 1) knows what's going on and 2) is working for "the mayor," who is never shown and never explicitly revealed to be evil until season 3. My memory says that there was no payoff to the Snyder working for the mayor storyline (i.e. their connection was never revealed, though the mayor does eat him at graduation), so I'll be interested to see how or if that gets played out.

* I had completely forgotten that Spike spends the last half of season 2 in a wheelchair and ends up helping Buffy against Angel and Dru because he "actually likes this world" and, of course, he wants to get rid of Angel so he can get Dru back. Seeing as how he only shows up once in season 3, I doubt that they had planned for Spike to eventually come over to Buffy's side, and that his return as a regular cast member in season 4 was due to fan demand (and the fact that he's a fun character). Knowing what we do now, it's interesting that he's never actually shown to be "evil," except in the season 7 flashbacks when he kills two slayers: he's just a vamp who needs to drink blood, and kill humans, to live, and he's always been a pit of a poncey romantic.

* For some reason I remembered Oz as being a bass player, instead of a lead guitarist, probably because he has a traditional bass player's personality. I had also forgotten that he was a genius who failed his first senior year because he never showed up at class. I guess they made him a senior in season 2, to make him the "older guy" who was interested in Willow, but when they decided to make him a regular in season 3, they had to come up with a reason to keep him at the school.

* Harmony (Spike's girlfriend in seasons 4 and 5 and Angel's secretary at Wolfram and Hart in the current season of Angel) has been around since episode 1, where she appeared as one of Cordelia's clique. She shows up from time to time in season 2, but hasn't been turned into a vamp yet; I wonder if Spike turns her when he comes back, or if it happens off screen? [As someone who is oddly obsessive about seeing which actors/characters get credited during the opening credits, I was very happy that ME decided to add Mercedes McNabb to the credits of the final 6 episodes of Angel.]

* Speaking of people who have been around for a long time: Jonathan, one of the geek brotherhood from season 6, appears in something like every fourth episode in seasons 1-2. I don't think he's ever been named yet, but he's around any time they need to show a geeky kid. Amy, the witch who spends most of seasons 3-5 as a rat, has also been around on off since the beginning, and plays a pretty big role in at least two episodes. Interesting to note that neither of these characters gets any respect as it were until season 6.

* I mentioned my bizarre obsession with the credited cast, right? Well, to this point in season 3 Joyce still isn't credited, whereas I thought that she had been since the beginning. And Cordelia has been part of the credited cast from the start, whereas I thought she got added when she and Xander started dating, so she's an original Scooby.

* Xander started off as a skate-punk in episode 1, but quickly morphed into a geek, with nary a skateboard in site.

* As far as I can tell, Buffy's dad has been played by at least two different actors.

* In almost every season 1 episode, Giles gets hit by the baddie and knocked out very easily. Shortly into S2, we learn that he used to be a tough (maybe even a "rogue demon hunter") in England called "Ripper" (that's what the proposed BBC series about him was to be called) and he suddenly stops being knocked out so easily.

* Willow starts learning witchcraft by studying the files of Jenny Calendar (self-described "techno-pagan") toward the end of season 2, and apparently started learning witchcraft on her own over the summer between seasons 2 and 3, while Buffy was living as a teenage runaway. While not a huge revelation in and of itself, I had somehow missed this, and I though that it had come out of nowhere in "The Zeppo". Also, no hints or clues at all that she'll eventually start liking the ladies; she seems very happy with Oz and Xander. I'm curious to re-watch season 4 and see if that comes about organically or comes from left field.

This has been your "I'm 12.2288% geek" post for the day. [Geek test courtesy of Johnny B.]

Thursday, April 22, 2004
Poker in the rear (or, stop complaining that I don't post about poker, Billy)

One of the things I miss most about my life in LA is the weekly poker game. I moved to Texas to get married almost exactly two years ago, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've played cards since then. Outside of so-called "business trips" back to LA, which I consider to be a way to expense my poker habit, I think I've played exactly once, and that was when Billy and David flew to Kansas City for a bizarro second non-wedding that my mom insisted on throwing my wife and I a few months after the real wedding.

The weekly game evolved out of a need to shoot the shit and blow off steam from a particularly grueling dot com work environment, and it grew from about 6-7 people at the first game to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 people at two tables at it's largest. A group that large became hard to accommodate very often and even harder to schedule. I believe that it was Will and I who first decided that we actually liked playing poker, and didn't want to mess around with coordinating games with 10 other people, many of whom weren't interested in the game itself so much as the social aspect of getting together. So we started having smaller, invite only games, which hurt some feelings, but made the games much more engaging.

There were four of us who played together most frequently, with a fifth "regular" who joined when he didn't have other plans. Occasionally, we'd invite over one of the others from the large group, but the five of us really started to click and when anyone else joined, they were clearly on the outside of the jokes (and their mother/girlfriend got insulted much less often).

When our dot com went bust, the poker games became sort of a lifeline for us as we struggled to find new careers and to remember what our lives were like before we invested 12 hours a day into a workplace. While we eventually grew apart from most of the other people from work, the five of us parlayed the weekly game into a semi-weekly game, with not infrequent trips to Vegas. In fact, on just about any given night, if two or more of us were bored, out would come the chips and the cards.

Somewhere in there, poker became even more serious for a few of us. We stopped calling games with wild cards, stopped playing "no peaky" and "pass the trash," and started playing more hands of Texas Hold 'Em and Omaha Hi-Lo. While I wouldn't say that any of us had a gambling problem, poker had become for us like backyard baseball or football was to many of us as kids; it was something that we really enjoyed and played as often as possible, more for the experience and practice than to take one another's money (though it was always nice to have bragging rights, and tell the others what we spent "their" money on, if we won).

Eventually, though, outside forces entered in to disrupt the fun. First J., and then I, got married and moved out of state (or vice versa), and the game sort of fell apart, only to return on rare occasions, or if I happened to be in town. Truth to tell, while I wouldn't have changed the decisions I made, I really missed playing cards.

Which is why it broke my heart last week that J. was back in LA, and getting together with the guys, but he didn't want to play poker. I understand his initial hesitation, I really do, but from my vantage point here at my desk in Wisconsin, I would have given my eyeteeth (pretty easy to do, since I don't know what they are) to be in LA playing cards with the guys. I'm happy to say that they eventually wore him down, and he even left the table up for the night. But I wish it had been me in LA, playing cards.

Oh, for those folks who visit here just for the comic stuff, one of the infrequent players in the weekly game was former DC editor Kevin Dooley. We even named a game after him, "Holy Dooley."

Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Comics: Father issues

Just got the new email newsletter from Mile High Comics, and in it MHC President Chuck Rozanski announces that they have posted the entirety of the first issue of Joe Quesada's Daredevil: Father mini-series (due out 4/28) on their web site. From a quick first glance, it appears as if Quesada is using a new style which seems to owe more to Frank Miller than his own previous work on the character.

Rozanski also clearly throws his retailer hat in the ring in support of Marvel comics. In fact, he says that Marvel allowing him to post this promo copy of DD: F is "a clear manifestation of why Marvel will always be able to outperform DC in the comics marketplace." [Please note that I do not have permission to repost this quote, but I think the short bit of I sampled should be covered under fair use terms, since his email went out to several thousand subscribers. Mr. Rozanski, if you see this and want me to take it down, just ask, please don't sue me. I am poor.]

I am Jeff's TV reviews

Some quick-ish TV reviews, because I want to:

SPOILERS AHEAD

I don't know what idiot decided to program 24 at the same time on Sunday night as Alias and The Sopranos, but they through off my whole taping schedule. It did, however, allow me to watch four of my favorite shows on the same night.

24 - Wow. I didn't think that Jack would really do it. I guess Chapelle was being punished for moonlighting as Carmella Soprano's priest, but still. This was a fairly intense episode, as all of the various characters are finally being pulled into the same plot, and it's a good one. I wish they hadn't had some of that diversionary stuff about the alleged sale of the virus during the middle part of the season, as that seriously derailed my enjoyment of the show. It may be time to get a new lead, with new personal problems, as I don't know that superagent Jack Bauer could keep me interested for another season after this one. Is he still going through heroin withdrawal?

Deadwood - Best new show on TV. I love the way that Swearengen uses words like "fuck" and "cocksucker" the way the rest of us use "the" and "and." Nice to see that Powers Boothe's Cy Tolliver has an angle as well, and it isn't going to be "good" saloon versus "evil;" it's just going to be the frontier way, represented by Swearengen, against the newfangled ways, represented by Tolliver, but both appear to have equal propensity for being heartless bastards. Anyone know what the plague that's coming is? It seems a little late for it to be THE plague, and it didn't look like smallpox that the guy had, from my limited medical knowledge. Does Jeffrey Jones have the plague, or is he just always coughing and sneezing? I'm interested to see where the subplot with E.B. Farnum goes; I get the feeling that he's trying to play Tolliver against Swearengen (not the Swearengen needs much motivation), in the hopes that he'll wind up on top. Fortunately, he may be just clueless enough to survive the battle. Oh, and the trial was great. I loved Swearengen's explanation of what this "trial" could mean for Deadwood and for the Dakota territory, makes a lot of sense to me.

Sopranos - what an episode! They're really playing up the man-child aspect of Tony, and Gandolfini does a typically excellent job showing Tony at his most hurt (upon the realization that his dog probably didn't go live on a farm), to his most desperate need for parental approval (when he came through with the money for Fran), to his almost creepy reaction to Fran's even creepier rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" (and if that doesn't give you nightmares, I don't know what will!). I think I've mentioned before that Christopher used to be my favorite character and, while he's no longer my favorite (many weeks I can't stand him), he had some great moments this week, capped by the scene in which Chris goes back to Daly's now empty apartment, not to try to get more money from him, but in some twisted sense of allegiance as Daly's sponsor in the program. Then and later in the car, Daly (aka The Guy from Wings) looks at him with such abject disbelief that Chris could somehow be legitimately concerned about him, while at the same time taking everything he owns, beating the shit out of him and in many ways driving him off the wagon. Junior's plot just makes me sad. Uncle June is a great character, and would work well as a powerful boss, but the narrative needs have resigned him to the role of the sad old man, presumably as an object lesson for Tony. Too bad.

Alias - It's funny; in any given episode it seems like a lot happens, yet nothing tremendous ever happens to advance the plot (CIA vs. The Covenant for Rimbaldi's artifacts to discover his legacy). I liked the scenes with Jack and Sloane, both pre- and post-execution (I can't believe I didn't see the end coming). Jack, with his constantly pursed lips and his willingness to literally do anything (wouldn't you like to see him and Jack Bauer team up to stop a national threat?) to protect his daughter and serve his country. Jack Bristow somehow makes you understand and even rationalize how our government can get away with some of the rights abuses that it does. I'm glad that Lauren has finally been "outed" to Vaughn, as I was getting tired of that particular sub-plot. My prediction is that she'll spend next year in the glass cage that recently housed Sloane and Irena. For the record, I've been guessing all along that Syd is the Passenger, or that the Passenger is e-vil, and that everyone has misunderstood Rimbaldi's prophecies all along. Oh, and I'm glad Sloane isn't Syd's dad; that was a cliche by the time the implied it on X-Files.

Angel - (okay, this was from last Wednesday, so sue me). I'm really going to miss this show, not so much because it's been riveting every week, but because it represents the kind of well-dialogued genre TV that I haven't found anywhere else, plus I feel like I've been "living" with these characters for a long time now (Angel himself for eight years, and Spike only one year fewer). This episode was mostly set-up for the big series ending brawl. I'm glad it's going to be against the senior partners, as they're the only element besides Angel who have been around since the beginning, back when the show was supernatural-noir. Much as I'm glad they brought back Christian Kane's Lindsey, I hope that they didn't just write Gunn out of the series permanently in order to do so. By the way, I personally *loved* that the hell dimension was suburbia. I picture Lindsey/Gunn talking about "busy days" the way that Will Ferrell's Frank did in Old School: trips to the Home Depot for tile, dinner at the Olive Garden, all the little things that scream domestication/hell. As for the Wesley/Illyria subplot, I'm less than interested. There's a lot of ways they could go with Illyria, as an elder demon living in the body of their friend, but forcing her to hang out in an apartment with a lovelorn and depressed Wesley isn't one of them. Didn't we already see this side of Wesley last season anyway?

That about wraps it up for last week. Tune in next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel for a new week's TV wrap-up.

Monday, April 19, 2004
Jeff's further adventures at Half Price Books

That last post was almost ungodly long and since both John Jakala and Tegan Gjovaag linked to me over the weekend, I don't want to scare any new readers off with a really long first entry. Besides, Peter David just posted his thoughts on both volumes of Kill Bill, and he makes more interesting points than I did in half the words (the entry is from April 19, but the permalinks aren't working, so you may have to scroll to find it).

As I mentioned last week, the best thing about Half Price Books is that you never know what you're going to find. On this week's trip, I found the full run of the 70s Machine Man series (1-9 by Jack Kirby!) save for issue 12 and the full run of Major Bummer, which from what I hear is an under-rated 90s DC series by John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke, save for issue 2. Good buys, for great prices.

I also took a gamble and picked up two of their big ole bricks of comics which are priced at 20 comics for $3, but you can only see the comics on the front and back. Feeling nostalgic for my youth (my comic collecting began in earnest with those grab bag packs of Marvel comics that they used to sell at Toys R Us for something like $3 for 20-25 Marvel comics), I picked up two bricks: one with Milestone comics' Hardware #1 on one side and Spider-Woman (the 90s mini) #4 on the other; the other with Hardware #4 on one side and DCs The Ray #19 on the other. I figured that I couldn't go wrong with $0.15 comics, right? There had to be a few gems in there.

I was wrong. Alongside the four issues that I could see, I ended up with 16 comics that I already had (and ones that weren't that good the first time), a couple random issues each of Power Pack, Azreal, Jemm: Son of Saturn, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, as well as such landmark issues as Rob Liefeld's Brigade #0 and Troll #1, Comics' Greatest World's Catalyst Week 4, Checkmate #1, Death's Head 2 #5, JLE #44, SilverBlade #12 (of 12 apparently), Richie Rich Diamonds #59, Mickey Mouse Adventures #3 (from 1990), Mickey and Goofy explore Energy Conservation, Project A-Ko versus the Universe #4, and Tony Digerolamo's The Travellers: World War 1/2 #16.

In other words, 40 comics that I had passed over in the HPB bins for the last 6 months had been taken from the bins (presumably to make room for Major Bummer and Machine Man) and slabbed together in a last ditch attempt to get some poor fool to pay money for them sight unseen. Consider my lesson learned.

Watch me get Punished after Killing Bill

It's been a perfectly SoCal weekend in Wisconsin, despite some wind, so what do I do? Spend all day Saturday at the movies! (To be fair, we did take the dog to the park yesterday, so I didn't spend all weekend indoors). Actually Mrs. Coffee Shop was busy studying, and apparently I was being "distracting," so I was told that a double feature might be "a good idea" for Saturday afternoon. Who am I to complain?

There are probably SPOILERS below, so be warned if you want to read on.

The first flick I took in was Tarantino's Kill Bill: vol. 2, which shocked the hell out of me by being a really good movie. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been shocked that it was good. Much as I dislike Tarantino's irritating personality, I think he's one of the best dialogue writers in contemporary cinema; his dialogue even elevates plots which are largely pastiche. I remember being blown away by Resevoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction when I first saw them, and being pleasantly surprised by the dialogue in Crimson Tide, a rather throwaway Denzel Washington submarine thriller which had an uncredited dialogue polish by Tarantino. But the combination of a too-long for it's own good Jackie Brown and QT's bracing personality "quirks" really put me off of him and his movies a few years back. As a result, last fall when I found myself in a theatre watching Kill Bill: vol. 1, I was less than surprised to find it to be a stylishly done pastiche of 70s revenge flicks populated by caricatures rather than "real" characters with a pseudo-beginning, some middle and no sense of ending or closure.

As a result, it was with some degree of trepidation that I went into the theatre to watch vol. 2. I shouldn't have been worried. I found myself captivated by the performances and the mannered-Tarantinoesque dialogue for the entire 137 minutes of the film. QT gets some wonderfully evocative performances from all of his actors, but particularly Michael Madsen and David Carradine. Madsen, in his best hang-dog washed up loser performance since, well, ever, is remarkably sympathetic, even as he's burying the Bride alive. Unlike my friend Carrie, Madsen has never been one of my favorite actors, despite his sadistic glee at cutting off ears in Resevoir Dogs, but I found myself really feeling for his character of a washed out assassin moving through a joyless life more by remote control and instinct than anything else (as uncomfortable as it was to hear that his hell was in Barstow, CA, somewhere that holds particularly hellish resonance for me, too). Everything he does is in the interest of self-preservation, even though he feels like they (Bill and the DiVAS) deserved the Bride's bloody revenge.

Carradine, meanwhile gives an incredibly nuanced performance as the "villain" of the piece (though I suppose it could be argued that the Bride herself was the villain), who is both completely amoral, yet a loving family man. Every time he was on the screen he showed more charisma and likability than anyone else, in my opinion in spite of, rather than because of, his 70s Kung Fu icon status. I found myself alternating from pathos to antipathy and back again almost every time he was in a scene. While I knew going in that the Bride was eventually going to Kill Bill, the inevitable confrontation completely subverted my expectations, while bringing a surprise or two (not a "twist" as is so in vogue these days). Carradine's Bill brought as much dignity and pathos to his inevitable death, as he did to his life.

Uma Thurman's The Bride, the character on whom the film hangs, is also much more interesting and here than in vol. 1. In vol. 1, she was a force of nature who had been wronged. With the lone exception of the scenes in the sushi shop with Sonny Chiba's Hattori Hanzo, you never got a sense that she was very interesting, only that she was deserving of justice. In vol. 2, we learn a lot more about what makes her tick, why she did what she did (as an assassin) and why she tried to get out. You also finally understand why QT said in interviews that he wrote this role for Thurman, who took several years off from the movies to have two children with (annoying angst-movie icon) Ethan Hawke. Thurman does an excellent job of capturing the nuances of the Bride, and you can palpably feel her heart breaking when Bill confronts her with what she really is. Say what you will about QT and his own personality, but he seems to have the ability to pull out some astonishing performances from his actors, especially from actors who many would consider to be "washed up" (Carradine, Madsen, Thurman, Travolta, Bruce Willis, Robert Forster).

Not that I have much to say about it other than wow, but Robert Rodriguez's score for the movie was absolutely breathtaking and elevated every single scene. I don't think I own any musical scores from movies, but this is one that I may have to buy.

Kill Bill vol. 2 is a remarkable achievement: art wrenched from pop-culture trash. It probably won't win any awards, though I would certainly consider it for a screenplay award for the dialogue alone and supporting actor nods for Carradine and Madsen. If you saw vol. 1 and hated it, go see vol. 2 anyway. If you never saw vol. 1, you can still see vol. 2, as it suitably recaps the first flick, and stands on it's own as a superior picture.

The other flick I caught (and I promise not to be as long-winded) was The Punisher. Even though I'm a comic book fan, and I like some of what writer Garth Ennis has done with the comic recently, I don't particularly like the Punisher, as a character or as a comic. I think he works better as a walk-on villain or anti-hero for Spider-man or Daredevil. But, they've published several very successful series' starring the Punisher, so why not a movie, right?

I'll say from the outset that seeing these two movies back to back was not a good idea. The Punisher has dialogue straight out of the Hollywood Action Movie Cliche Factory (TM), while Kill Bill has dialogue which is much more mannered, and self-consciously artificial, but is much more interesting to listen to, so the dialogue was a strike against the Punisher from the beginning.

With that out of the way, I think I can say that it was a fairly harmless action pic, of the kind that we've all seen a million times. There are plot-holes a plenty, and I'm not going to bother pointing any of them out, save that I'm still confused how Castle survived a point blank shot to the chest and being blowed up real good. I understand that the witch doctor made him better, but how did he get to where the witch doctor could find him?

The biggest problem with the movie is that it strove for a dichotomy of action/revenge movie and black comedy (the scenes between Castle and his neighbors, and the fight with the Russian) and it just didn't work. To make a movie with a complex tone like that, you need a director with much more vision or at least experience than first time director Jonathan Hensleigh. Instead, what you get is a revenge pig (like Kill Bill) with some weird moments thrown in that you can tell the director meant to be comic (funny), but just don't work. In my admittedly not worth much opinion, I think they should have played the first Punisher movie like a straight-up revenge pig, with Castle coming "back from the dead" like a force of nature (why did he announce his presence to the media again?) to avenge his family, and then used a second movie to play up the black comedy angle of how this completely dispensation guy would get along if forced into a surrogate family of misfits.

Like I mentioned, Frank Castle has to be a force of nature in order work well, and he has to be shown to be completely off his rocker mentally unbalanced, not in a Mel Gibson Lethal weapon way, but in an I'm-going-to-kill-everyone-who-doesn't-fit my-definition-of-morality-way. Enjoy' most important innovation in the comics is to make it clear that Castle has always had the sadistic Punisher inside him, it just took the murder of his family to unleash that side of him. In this movie, he's just a guy who got pushed too far and metes out revenge on those who took his family from him. The movie doesn't really show the motivation for him to continue his quest to "punish evil-doers;" the film even makes a big deal about the fact that pre-Punisher Castle doesn't want people, even bad people, to be killed on his operations. The change is too quick, too drastic, and they don't bother to build up why his vendetta is going to carry on beyond vengeance.

Tom Jane is decent in the action hero role, though I don't see why he had to drop his voice an entire octave for this movie. He doesn't embody Frank Castle in quite the way that Hugh Jackman did Wolverine the first time out, but he's close. I'd certainly go see him in other action movies. John Travolta as the heavy uses typical Travolta mannerisms to chew up both the dialogue and the scenery and, to be honest, the less said, the better. You know what you're getting with him. The smaller performances were all equally mediocre, with the only real standout being Eddie Jemison (of Ocean's 11 fame) as Micky Duka. They could have had a lot of fun with Spacker Dave and Bumpo, but instead they somehow missed the boat with those characterizations.

All in all, The Punisher is fine for what it is, but don't go in expecting much. It's the kind of movie that I prefer seeing on the big screen to the small, but only because I'm a masochist when it comes to big dumb action movies (I only stay away from those involving Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin).

Still to come: a review of the Ladykillers, which I saw a week and a half ago, so I don't expect my memory of it to be quite as good.

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