Sunday, October 5, 2014

Movie Reviews: "A Good Marriage" [2014] and "Horns" [2013] (plus a bit of "Gone Girl")

Two of my friends once got into a mild dispute over some movie (don't remember what) that one of them had loved and the other had hated.  The former accused the latter of going into the screening with knives sharpened, expecting to dislike it and therefore tailoring an experience to fit his prejudices.
  
"Why would I ever want to not like a movie?" was the simple, irrefutable answer that came back.
  
I find myself in the somewhat unfortunate position of having (A) expected not to like the movie version of A Good Marriage and (B) having indeed not liked it.  Months ago, when the project was announced, I furrowed my brow a bit and said, "Well, Joan Allen is awesome casting, but I'm sort of worried about the director and I don't like Anthony Lapaglia as Bob at all."
  
That said, please understand that when I tell you that my two major problems with A Good Marriage are, indeed, Anthony Lapaglia and Peter Askin, this is not a case of me tailoring the experience to fit my expectations.  Why would I ever want to not like a Stephen King movie?
  
  
  
  
And yet, here we are.  There can be no doubt that indeed I did NOT like the movie.  In fact, I thought it was kind of terrible.  My feelings about it may have been influenced somewhat by another movie I saw earlier in the evening (more on that later), but I don't think that was the case to a large degree.  I'm not immune to influences of that sort, but I'm fairly self-aware as a(n amateur) critic; I take such things into consideration.

So when I tell you that in my opinion, A Good Marriage is a complete misfire, I speak with confidence.  I wish it weren't so, but I also wish that buffalo wings were healthy eating.  They aren't, because wishing doesn't make it so.


I was always worried about A Good Marriage.  I like the novella, but I don't find it to be anything special: for me, it's middle-of-the-road King that feels a bit like a good idea given inadequate exploration, or perhaps like a novel that has been truncated into novella length.  A lot of people seem to like it more than I do, though, and maybe they'll also be more satisfied by the movie.

I was initially excited about the movie, given that Joan Allen had been cast as Darcy.  Allen is a major-league talent, with three Oscar nominations to her name just for starters -- she's also got Golden Globe, Emmy, BAFTA, and Tony nominations, among many others.  Generally speaking, merely having Joan Allen in a lead role automatically puts it on the radar for Oscar nominations.  So having her onboard for A Good Marriage was a terrific first step.

Next came the news -- or was this first? (I can't remember) -- that King was writing the screenplay.  "Uh-oh," thinks I.  King has not exactly proven to be the world's finest when it comes to adapting his own material, and most of his successes in that realm have come at the television-miniseries length.  I automatically give a book with his name on it a thumbs-up, and will have to be proven wrong about it; with screenplays, the inverse holds true.

If King writing the screenplay was mild cause for concern, the decision to hire Peter Askin as director was cause for full-blown concern.  He's directed only two feature films, Company Man and Certainty, and you've heard of neither.  Statistically-speaking, I'm correct about that, because neither movie made an impression on the world; and even among the people who have seen them, they don't seem to be highly regarded, at least not if the user ratings on IMDb are the standard of judgment.  By the way, the odds are good that if you think you've heard of Company Man, you are actually thinking of The Company Men, which starred Ben Affleck and is not the same movie in any way (except perhaps for the disdain of IMDb's users).

Still, I was okay with his hiring; after all, good directors don't always show their talent right away.

I got pessimistic about the movie only when I read that Anthony LaPaglia had been cast as Bob.  LaPaglia has never made much of an impression upon me, and while I can't be said to be well-versed in his roles, I've seen him in plenty of things.  That said, maybe if I'd been a fan of his best-known work -- which is probably Without a Trace, the long-running tv series -- I might like him more.  So even his hiring wasn't a dealbreaker, because I could speculate that I might have simply not seen him in the right role yet.

The final straw came when I read that the film would be opening day-and-date in a small handful of theatres at the same time it was released onto VOD and iTunes.  In effect, this is the movie-release version of shrugging.  ("Well, here's this movie, if you want it," he said noncommittally.)  ("Well," said the executive, "we may as well go ahead and release it so we can at least take the write-off for losing money on making it.")  ("My client's contract specifies a theatrical release of a minimum of _____ cities," said the agent.)

I'll grant you that the industry is changing, and that a VOD release is no longer the absolute sign of low quality that it once was.  This year, Snowpierecer -- which, by all accounts, is excellent -- got released that way despite starring Chris "Captain America" Evans, Ed Harris, and Tilda Swinton.  As we proceed into the future, releases like these will only become more and more frequent; and that's probably a good thing, because the more effectively studios can find the audiences for movies, the better movies should theoretically be.

So despite the director, the male lead, and the perfunctory release pattern, I went into A Good Marriage with an open mind.  Unfortunately, within just a few minutes I knew that my initial concerns about Askin and LaPaglia had been well-founded.

What I didn't expect was that I found myself not even liking what Joan Allen was doing.  I wouldn't go so far as to say she's bad in the movie; she's too good to ever be BAD, probably.  However, I can say with certainty that she isn't as good as you would expect her to be, and in looking to assign blame for that, I'm going straight to Peter Askin.  Not having seen any of his previous work, I don't know whether he is good at getting performances or not.  Based on this limited sampling, I'd say he is terrible at it.

I'd also say that he is quite poor at shot design, camera placement, and editing, all of which are much more vital to crafting a good film performance than the layman probably understands.  Some of Joan Allen's scenes in A Good Marriage seem to me almost to be rehearsal-quality scenes that the editor decided for one reason or another.  An editor can have a major impact on a public's perception of an actor's ability: if the editor chooses takes that don't match in terms of consistency, then a performance can be seen as scattered and incoherent.  Replace the inconsistent takes with consistent ones, and the entire nature of the performance changes.

Similarly, if an actor is filmed from poor angles, it can make a big impact.  There is a scene in A Good Marriage involving Darcy and Bob having a conversation in bed.  Have a look at how some of that scene is filmed:




Ignore what LaPaglia is doing with his mouth; that is the consequence of poor screencap selection on my part.  Focus instead (no pun intended, except it sort of WAS intended) on poor Joan Allen.  I did not crop the image for this screencap; I present it as it is in the film.

In any two-person dialogue scene, it is natural to cut back and forth between the two characters to give prominence to whichever of them is talking at that moment.  And that's why LaPaglia is in focus here and Allen isn't.  However, it ought to be clear even to a third-grader that you'd want to do one of two things with the other person in the scene: either eliminate them altogether or pull the camera back a bit and have their entire face be in frame.  Alternatively, film the entire scene as a single shot and have both actors be in frame simultaneously.  Actors love that sort of thing, because it permits them to be more present in the moment and to play off each other more effectively.

Here, Peter Askin has made one of the worst of all possible choices.

Granted, this is merely one single scene, and elsewhere he's less incompetent.  But at no point does he cross over into actual competency, and that, film buffs, is a problem.

We'll come back to A Good Marriage, but first, let us now briefly transition into a bit of talk about the movie I saw earlier in the evening:




I have not read the novel on which Gone Girl is based (although after seeing the movie, I'd like to).  I came to this film primarily as a fan of director David Fincher, who is one of the most consistently interesting directors in the business.  I've enjoyed each of his movies to one extent or another.  And just for fun, why not have a look at a poster for each of them?


By most objective standards, I think you'd have to peg this as Fincher's worst movie.  But I rather like it, personally; there are great individual scenes, and the cast is wonderful.

I would characterize this as being a great movie that is much more unnerving than the vast majority of its imitators.

Nobody seems to talk about this one all that much, but I think it is frigging terrific.  This is the closest Fincher has gotten to Hitchcock territory, Gone Girl excepted.

Very close to perfection, as far as I am concerned.  Certainly one of the great movies of its age.

I only saw it once, and was sort of underwhelmed by it; but I was probably expecting another Fight Club, which is an unreasonable expectation.  I should watch it again.

Again, I only saw this once, so I don't remember it terribly well.  But I liked it, and given how its reputation has grown, I think I'd probably get more out of it the second time.

My least favorite Fincher movie.  It isn't bad, but it never quite comes together.  But (again), I only saw it once, so maybe a rewatch is in order.

A masterpiece.  Riveting in every way.

Solid, but unspectacular.  But, YET AGAIN, I only saw it once.
 
 
Fincher also did a lot of great music videos early in his career; and more recently, he directed the first two episodes of Netflix's House of Cards, which were by far the best episodes of that series I've seen. 
 
When he's at his best, Fincher exerts a command of cinematic language that can compete with that of virtually anyone.  And there are moments in Gone Girl which caused me to literally sit on the edge of my seat.  I was alone in the theatre, on account of the fact that I work at one and was quality-checking the movie prior to its opening; therefore, I can do such things with self-consciousness.  But even if I'd been in a packed auditorium, I might have found my ass creeping toward the edge of the seat.
 
I've got a few mild quibbles with the movie, but in every way that matters, Gone Girl is exceptional cinema.  Ben Affleck?  Great.
  
  
 
 
Rosamund Pike?  Occasionally hampered by not speaking in her own (British) accent, but essentially great.  I might even say great.  And you know that when I bust out the bold italics, I mean business.
 
 
Odds are good that once you've seen the movie, this shot (which opens the film) will haunt you.
 
 
Everyone else in the movie is great, too, up to and including Tyler Perry, who plays Affleck's defense attorney.  Yes, THAT Tyler Perry.
 
So on the one hand, we've got David Fincher, who can get a terrific performance out of Tyler Perry; and on the other we've got Peter Askin, who manages to coax a mediocre performance out of Joan Allen.  If you needed an illustration of the difference in behind-the-camera efficacy between A Good Marriage and Gone Girl, look no further.
 
There is a bit of thematic overlap between the two movies, both of which feature a troubled relationship and a murderer.  (In the case of Gone Girl, of course, the question of whether Affleck is or is not actually playing a murderer is the hook of the story, and you'll not get the answer to that from me.  Anyone who spoils that deserves to be run through a wood-chipper.)  Both films were adapted from bestselling books, and in both cases the screenplays were written by the original authors.  Both films have award-winning talent in front of the camera.
 
Apart from that, they serve as object lessons in what makes suspense films work and what makes suspense films fail.  The closest thing Peter Askin has to a visual flourish is a vague series of references to Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.  In that classic Cary Grant film, he walks up a staircase carrying a tray with a glass of milk on it, and the milk may or may not be poisoned; Hitchcock pulled a trick where he caused the milk to glow for effect.  In A Good Marriage, Askin films LaPaglia going up a staircase with a tray of "fizzy water" not once but twice, and he holds back from going all the way to Suspicion territory; he doesn't have the water glow, or focus on it, or anything.  Which begs the question: why insert a Suspicion reference at all?  Go all the way or avoid it, says I.  I'm tempted to think that Askin might not have even known it was a reference to another movie, so poorly does he achieve it; it's feasible to think that King might have put these moments in the screenplay assuming Askin would know what to do, only to find out later that Askin had no clue.
 
And, bear in mind, this is what I'm saying is the closest thing he has to visual panache.
 
Fincher, on the other hand, does some of the best work of his career in Gone Girl.  If the difference between the two directors were expressed in terms of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fincher would be the monolith and Askin would be one of the chimps.  Probably one of the ones closer to the back.
 
Of course, it's unfair for me to compare the two.  After all, they have nothing to do with one another, and there need be no direct competition between the two films.  (It's terrible luck, terrible timing, or both for A Good Marriage to come out on the same day as Gone Girl, though; the latter made close to $40 million this weekend, whereas the former appears to not be reporting a gross.  Not a good sign.)
 
I mention all of this to illustrate a point: filmmaking technique matters.  I know some people think it doesn't.  Those people are wrong.  Some people think technique doesn't matter in other areas of life, too, such as cooking; and some people are unable to tell the difference between a fine meal and a microwave dinner.  I'm fine with that, right up until the point at which somebody tries to convince me that that lump of warm stuff in my microwave is just as good as a chef-prepared meal.  Some people might say so.
 
Those people are wrong.
 
A Good Marriage, sadly, is not even good enough to qualify as a decent microwave dinner.  Nothing in the movie works; nothing at all.  Joan Allen has a few good scenes, but overall can't turn Darcy into a particularly sympathetic character.  I read the novella and understood exactly why Darcy would do what she does; I watched the movie and felt she was irresponsible and selfish, and would have been better-served to turn the fucker in.
 
Anthony LaPaglia is woefully miscast.  He's not bad, exactly; in some ways, his performance is arguably more consistent than Allen's.  But he has no chemistry with Allen, he shows no signs of charisma in his own right, and he's not creepy or menacing enough to inject any scares, even mild ones.  When I think of what I would have wanted to see between Darcy and Bob, I always come back to the scenes in Breaking Bad in which Skylar confronts Walt over his meth business.  Those scenes crackle with intensity, drama, and fear for what might happen next.  The scenes between Darcy and Bob in this movie are utterly lifeless.
 
Elsewhere, the movie wastes Kristen Connolly in a small role as the Andersons' daughter; and misuses Stephen Lang, whose role as the retired detective ought to have eliminated altogether.  He's good, but King fails to realize that what works as a coda in prose does not always work as a coda to a film; and here, the wrapup seems pointless and forced.  There is also a character who (I think -- somebody correct me if I am wrong) was invented for the movie: a hot female neighbor, who may or may not become Bob's next victim.  She's pointless, but at least makes a vague impression; the actors who play Petra's brother and husband could have been replaced by scarecrows and nobody would have noticed.
 
What more is there to say?  I could try to be more specific about how inept the movie is on a scene-by-scene basis, but why should I bother?
 
Perhaps a word about the manner in which I saw the movie is in order.  Seeing as how it did not open in a theatre near me, I was reduced to purchasing it from iTunes, which I was not thrilled to do.  I've got nothing against iTunes, mind you.  I'm simply of the opinion that if I'm going to spend money on a movie, it had better be in shown to me in a theatre or it better come on a disc that I get to keep permanently.  Paying for a download is not something I enjoy doing, because it seems impermanent and fleeting.  And this fucking thing was over $15 after taxes!  That's the price of an IMAX movie in my location.  Big difference between an IMAX screen and watching on an iPad, which is what I did.
 
It was the first time I watched a movie on an iPad, and it's an experience I am unlikely to repeat very often.  I don't have a stand to put the fucking thing on, and my cats kept wanting to lay on it while I was in bed watching.  I love you, kitties, but get the fuck off of Joan Allen, please.
 
Anyways, despite that, the very next night found me watching another movie the same way:
 
 
 
 
This was a surprise to me, considering that there had been no advance warning -- not so far as I am aware of, at least -- that the movie was being released until October 31.  It, too, was pegged for a limited theatrical engagement, which I figured meant I wouldn't get to see this one in a theatre, either.
 
Evidently somebody decided it made more sense to simply dump the film onto iTunes, with no fanfare of any sort.  Even Joe Hill, via Twitter, seemed a bit surprised by its sudden appearance. 
 
Now, look . . . here's the thing.  I've got nothing against VOD, iTunes, etc.  Similarly, I've got nothing against trying new marketing methods.  However, I feel as if every movie needs to be sold differently based on its merits, and on the perceived potential fanbase.  And to me, it feels like Horns was capable of more than this.  That has nothing to do with my thoughts on the movie itself (more on which momentarily), but is based more on the fact of the film's genre, tone, and star.  Horror has been on a hot-streak lately, especially when it comes to anything involving demons.  The source material lends itself toward selling a movie based on those connections; but, as an extra added bonus, the novel -- and, indeed, the movie -- works fairly well as a tragic romance, a quasi-fantasy, a satire, and a murder mystery.  In other words, there's isn't merely one potential audience for this film, there are several.
 
Add to that the fact that the movie stars Daniel Radcliffe, who is arguably one of the most popular movie stars in the entire world.  Granted, that's mostly on the basis of the Harry Potter movies; but his presence helped turn The Woman in Black into a hit, and it could have done the same for Horns.
 
So really, this ought to have been an easy-to-market film that had a gross of $50 million domestic at a bare minimum.  Find the exact right release date, and maybe you could get $75 mil.  Then, later, you can get all the money from ancillary markets like VOD, Blu-ray, etc.
 
Instead, the people behind Horns seem to have mostly given up on it.  On his Twitter feed, Hill indicates that they are trying to replicate the success of Snowpiercer.  He's probably right about that; but Snowpiercer probably had more theatrical-release potential in it, too.
 
Such considerations are important, and they're of interest to me on any number of levels.  But really, now that the movie is out, they are irrelevant.
 
The question now becomes: is the movie good?
 
The answer: it's okay.  Remember me mentioning that I was worried about A Good Marriage based on the director?  Well, the same was true of Horns, which is directed by Alexandre Aja.  Aja made High Tension, which I didn't much like; and he also made the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which was just kind of gross.  Not bad; a bit much for me, but effective in terms of its goals.
 
I wasn't sure Aja had it in him to properly adapt Horns, however, and in I was correct to a point.  He doesn't fall flat on his face at any point during Horns, and there are some scenes that work extremely well.  Overall, though, it's a film in search of a cohesive tone.  At times it is funny, at times romantic, tragic, weird, gross, whimsical, etc.  Hill's novel is like this as well, but Hill, via his strong prose and perspective, is able to make all of these things feel as if they co-exist naturally.  Aja seemingly only has one mode in him at a time, however, so many of the individual scenes fail to coalesce into what you'd call a unified whole.
 
Despite this, I think the movie works fairly well.  Daniel Radcliffe is great.  Like Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, he occasionally feels as if he's forcing things a bit in order to get past the fact that he's having to speak in an American accent.  However, he does so capably, and he does very well with the extreme range of emotions his character undergoes.  This is the first time I've seen him in anything outside of the Harry Potter films, and he's gotten so much better as an actor since then that he may as well not even be the same person anymore.  He's the real deal, folks.
 
The rest of the cast is good, too, ranging from Juno Temple as Merrin (Ig's dead girlfriend -- say, there's some Gone Girl overlap here, too, isn't there?) to Max Minghella as Lee; Joe Anderson as Terry; Kelli Garner as Glenna; James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, who are Ig's parents and each of whom has a dynamite scene with Radcliffe; Heather Graham as a (pardon the pun) self-serving waitress; and David Morse, who is excellent as Merrin's father.  Morse has appeared in several Stephen King movies, so it's especially welcome to see him now appearing in a Joe Hill movie.
 
I'll say this for Horns: it is holding up well in my memory after having seen it.  That's always a crucial test for a movie.  In case you're wondering, Gone Girl is holding up marvelously, too; whereas A Good Marriage is growing worse in my mind the more I think about it.
 
Would that it were not so.

14 comments:

  1. I never got into the novella that much either, and the main result I got from the movie version? In a word: Boredom. That's it really, sorry to say, I can't really think of another word that sums it up. Neither high, nor low, just "meh".

    The only questions I have for Horns as a film is the one big change they made from book to screen. That is the main reason why the title “Horns” appear in the first place. This is something Hill actually does provide an answer for (sort of), in the original novel. I don’t want to give much spoilers, all I’ll say is I doubt it has anything to do with either parties viewers might be thinking of, and it seems to have more to do with a concept he develops further of N0S402. Hoping I’m really not giving anything away, the key word here is: Inscape.

    Anyone who’s gone through N0 and then goes back to read Horns, they’ll find that the book makes a bit more sense and that it’s probably even expanded with more input from the later work. That Inscape element is one I really wish had been left in the script, because it at least hints at how and why the events unfold the way they do. That said, I also realize that the whole Inscape idea Hill works into his books (and perhaps now into his dad’s fiction as well) is one of those very big, high-concept, brainy English Major type ideas, and I’m not really sure how confusing it would be to a wide mainstream audience. Personally, I don’t mind a bit of surrealism in my entertainment. I find it can be an interesting way of getting themes across. On the other hand, not many studios seem willing to take that kind of gamble, and so this playing it safe can often have mixed results. Does this ruin the film for me? Not really, it’s just that I wonder how confusing it will seem to most audiences. They’ll leave thinking, “that was a good scare”, and then they’re going to be stopped by the inevitable “WTF was all that about?!!”

    Yeah, that’s why I kinda wish they’d left the Treehouse in.

    ChrisC


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    1. I'd say "boredom" is an apt word to use describing the movie version of "A Good Marriage." Succinct, accurate.

      I was a bit surprised by how much I didn't mind the treehouse/inscape elements of "Horns" being omitted from the movie. I love that element of the novel, but I think you're right to suspect general audiences might have been a bit confused by it. Not that the movie has ended up even chasing a large general-type audience, but still.

      I think Aja is probably the wrong kind of director to try and handle material like that anyways. That would need a VERY delicate touch, and I've seen only a wee bit of evidence that he's got that in him.

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  2. I'm going to have to cycle back to this post after I get the chance to see these three movies. Of them, I'm looking forward to Gone Girl the most.

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    1. It's twice as good as the other two put together, and maybe more.

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    2. Well, 12+ months later, I've only seen Gone Girl. read the book, too - both great!

      I'm trying to hunt down your True Detective reviews and just read this one in passing... carry on.

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    3. Sadly, there are no True Detective reviews to speak of. I did write a brief piece about it (http://thetruthinsidethelie.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-few-words-about-true-detective.html) after the second episode, though.

      God, I'd LOVE to write reviews of every episode, though. Second season included.

      As for "Horns" and (especially) "A Good Marriage," you're not missing much. The former is okay, but the latter is dreadful.

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  3. I really enjoyed Horns the movie. I just finished listening to it the day before it came out on VOD. I didnt understand the inscape stuff at all in the book. I was going to go back and read the ending, which was still cool with the fire and flames and the what not glavin. Sorry loving the simpsons on 4 hours a day!
    Anyhoo, I thought the casting of the bad guy was terrible just terrible, I mean I kind of get it since the movie is shorter and you're not gonna suspect him but his character means so much in the book and this was just silly.
    But I still thought it was really good but the ending should have ended in fire, some kind of fire.

    I have no interest n A Good Marriage after your review, thanks dude.
    -mikeC

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    1. I didn't mind the casting of Lee; could have been better, but didn't bother me. I thought Max Minghella did a fairly good job. Overall the movie did feel like it ought to have been considerably longer, though, that's for sure.

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  4. I thought Fincher needed a separate post. I realized the other day that I really don't like Fincher movies. Fight Club is my favorite movie of all time and I think everything about Seven is brilliant. He was my favorite director or one that I watched closely to see what they were doing and delve into the intricacies of his film making then I went through his last couple movies in my head. Dragon Tattoo was just a bleak boring mystery. Next. I can't watch the facebook movie because of my hatred of Jesse Eisenberg. Next. Benjamin Button, just never got around to it. Zodiac was good, but too long with no conclusion. Panic Room had an awesome credit sequence. The Game. Hmm. Good concept cool movie. Stupid ending. So someone I considered being one of my favorite filmmakers only made 3 and a half movies I liked. Weird.
    -mikeC

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    1. Not that weird at all. I love four M. Night Shyamalan movies, and everything he's made since has been refuse.

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    2. Do you like The Village or Lady in the Water? I like the both although I thought the ending of the Village was groan worthy but it made sense. I think a lot of people don't like Lady in the Water but I just look at it as a kid's movie and it was not advertised as such. But I like it like as a kid's movie.
      -mikeC

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    3. I'm a big fan of "The Village." Not only do I like the ending, but I think it actually cements the rest of the film.

      I'd forgotten about "Lady in the Water." That one is okay. Everything after, though . . . ick.

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  5. Just been watching Radcliffe in a young doctors notebook on Netflix. It's a short 4 part mini series...20 minute long episodes, so it's easy to get through in 1 sitting. He's really really good in it and id recommend it to you...you're right he really has come on as an actor.

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    1. I've heard of that -- sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!

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