‘Sleepless’ is all things good about “just another genre entry”

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One of the humble pleasures found at the cinema is the dad-action film. This microgenre is ruled by Liam Neeson who cemented his role as the particularly skilled patriarch of the Taken series. But not just Taken, Taken 2, or Taken 3, there’s also Non-Stop, The Grey, Unknown, A Walk Among The Tombstones and Run All Night.

Now, Jamie Foxx is taking a run at the tall handsome irishman’s throne with Sleepless. It’s the story of a crooked cop out to save his kidnapped son by any means necessary. By and large it works for what it is. How’s that for a poster quote, “as advertised.”

The title gives you a hint at what’s going on, it takes place over the course of, by my rough estimate, 32 hours. An early morning heist gone bad, the next day of the police scrambling trying to figure it out and a night of guns, knives and other nice things in the confines of a vegas casino.

It’s a full movie that actually takes its time. This movie allows a rare kind of proper set up, it’s almost jarring. When the first real hand to hand fight scene hits, you’ll feel a little relief, this is an action movie after all.

Not only does this film hang comparably with the impressive Neeson oeuvre (he’s not in it but the cast is great nonetheless), it’s also got what makes that collection so special. Sleepless has a personality and place. Think back to the various Neesons, there’s the plane one, the wolf punching one, the Ed Harris and Catholics one, the 90s noir, the amnesia one. For what hopefully will be the start of a long late career action revival, this is Foxx’s Vegas Die Hard one.

The confining single location for most of the action warrants a comparison to the first Die Hard though not as crisply plotted, there’s a lot more players here and the police do not just stand around. The criss crossing character motivations are nuanced as well. It’s not as clear cut as “shoot the german guy out the window.”

You’ll be glad that the filmmakers didn’t kowtow to the old mothers at the MPAA. For what could have been a PG-13 star power retread of cut aways and red smoke, you’ll see all sorts of creativity here. A scene of baseball torture and a handsy, pressure cooker like performance by Scoot McNairy flavor the festivities. There are cars, car crashes. There is a parking garage. There is a weapons trunk. Gas? Is there really a gas attack in this movie??? Yes, and more.

They don’t let David Harbour, Michelle Monaghan, or even Gabrielle Union go to waste. Pretty much everybody fights or shoots at everybody else. They cover their bases spreading the action around to the whole cast but never in a way that feels like it betrays the character motivations that drive this whole thing. There is a father and son team up fight that plays well when on its face that idea should really be ridiculous.

Dermot Mulroney’s character, the casino owner, doesn’t get much action but for good reason. In the dance of character meetings leading up to all hell breaking loose they subvert our expectations for who a Vegas big bad looks and acts like.
If you enjoyed this film enough to want another go round with the tension and stakes even higher, well they left the door open. It’s a door I’ll want to go through if it should ever appear.

Sleepless is now playing nationwide.

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Year in Review: 2016

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(pictured: what 2016 did to me)

This was not a good year. I got out to half as many movies as I’d like to, but made up for it accidentally by watching too much TV and getting into comics in the fall so…

Here are the numbers:

39 Full seasons of TV watched (40 if you count Horace and Pete which, it seems like most people, I still need to finish)

62 Films watched on VOD/Hard disk

80 Films watched in Theaters (with a few first run VOD exceptions like High-Rise, Skiptrace, Weiner etc)

-Over 100 individual issues of comics

9 older collected classic comic trades

5 nonfiction books (this is going to seem really sad but I’ve got a couple dozen that I’m 100 or so pages into)

-I didn’t keep track of fiction but if I did read anything it was probably a fantasy book aimed at kids like Redwall or Outlaws of Time by ND Wilson (it has a fantastic book trailer fwiw) with a few excursions into science fiction books on tape

6 video games that came out this year

5 video games from years past

-I haven’t even thought about music because in addition to being bad at it, I hardly understand it. (Church Clothes 3 by Lecrae, Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper and of course Lemonade)

5 comedy specials (all netflix and generally underwhelming except for Bo Burnham’s Make Happy who remains an interesting if undeniably jaded young man)

Hopefully I’ll post more complete analysis with time breakdowns and stuff so we can see exactly how much sleep I lost on those terrible CW superhero shows.

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What exactly happened last night? Westworld episode 7 – trompe l’oeil

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Is Bernard a man? or does he just take the appearance of a man? Like taking a few steps to the left while looking at the paintings of the header image, this episode of Westworld gave us a fuller truth about Bernard. We saw the stretched out parts of him, some parts flattened altogether.

I will contend that the robots are not just “toasters” that rob the drama of any stakes or the action of any fun. No, from that one particular vantage we had been given to this point Bernard is a man. A man who loved his child, who found a lover at work. A lover who hurt his feelings a little, but delicately, when she broke up with him. All the pieces line up to paint a full true picture… for a time.

In the same way, a piece of art can be shattered when you learn a fuller truth about the person who made it, or the harsh conditions under production. That shattering image, the protection of what’s inside the frame is why Old Hollywood studios were so tight with the image of their stock of movie stars.

It’s the beauty of what’s inside the frame of Bernard’s work life sleuthing with Elsie, carrying on his affair, being wounded that makes the will-shattering, character-defying behavioral discontinuity of killing Theresa all the more galling.

We want, I mean I want, Bernard to be a man. To be full and whole. We’re getting not so subtle hints from Maeve and Dolores’ stories that a broader based revolt against the oppression of the mortal creators of the hosts is taking shape. Will we see a Bernard who regrets? A Bernard to knows who made him a killer when he didn’t want to be. I  hope so.

The video game analogy for Westworld is applicable but deficient for the park. Not so many games are dialog based. The players in the park are co writers, co creators in every aspect of the story they are on (though the nudge is certainly there to sit back make as few choices as possible and enjoy the ride). The only game I can really think of like this, authorly in ambition and scope, is Facade.

At a point if the technology gets good enough, games like Facade just becomes talking. I imagine whatever is to be had at the end of that particular chat bot rabbit hole could just as easily be found in some underground AIM chatroom with an actual human.

This whole show is an exercise in flicking the eye that is self aggrandizement in creation. We are not so good to our creations as we think, maybe in the blasphemy of good creation, the creation itself becomes our enemy. If the creation can be free and real but we keep it fake and enslaved what are we making really? Toasters with emoji labels? Worse?

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Donald J. Trump is Evil

Maybe it’s bluster? He can’t really mean those things, or honestly hold the ideas behind those things.

Take punitive action against his opposition’s speech and the free press? Oh really.

Order US Marines to put their guns into cribs and shoot children? Not going to happen.

Make Mexico pay? Pretty vague, not even really a threat.

China will give back the jobs? Americans don’t actually want those jobs, POTUS can’t write new trade legislation, the market is self evidently good to anyone with even the barest education.

So it has gone for many when it comes to Donald J. Trump. He just seems too stupid and logistically untethered to be credibly dangerous. How are his plans even doable?

But then we remember the guns. For a while there have been issues in the presidency with encroaching war powers, like an unhealthy willingness in killing US citizens abroad, that have softened us up to the idea of an arbitrary executioner-in-chief. This is THE problem with someone like Donald J. Trump. What will he do with all the guns.

We need to stop thinking about Donald J. Trump as a Forrest Gump-ian, misplaced Real America Rosetta stone for the working class. See this manipulator for who he is, a strange mix of Bill Cosby and Saddam Hussein.

“They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.” – If there was one ethos that summed up Donald J. Trump it would be this one quote. From his own sexual entitlement to a linguistic obsession with emasculation and sexual violation as metaphor for the uncertain economic circumstances of his base. There’s no consideration for conscious, if he has anything left in his own seared corpse of an inner life or the possibility for that beauty in others. He has a raw unabated indulgence in everything including violence against children. The darkest part in his hate and his ruthlessness, slipping out in the quote above, is that his violence extends to those who say that he is wrong. Violence is his only guarantee, his only stick and his only sick carrot for the orcs that follow him. Refusing Donald J. Trump is an existential question, according to him.

We should take world leaders at their word. Taking Trump at his word should net only one response, moral resistance.

Will Donald J. Trump put a nuclear bomb right in the middle of Mexico City? We just can’t know he won’t if he doesn’t get what he wants.

Where in the past Right and Left have argued about the role of the government in justice, in moral social control, in what “the good life” is and how it should be promoted, with Donald J. Trump we see something entirely different. Not a new moral proposition to be negotiated or accommodated but a dark absence of any morals whatsoever. You’ll notice how after the uproar over every statement the walk back is inevitably “I won’t do that because you don’t like it” which really means “I don’t want the resistance now because I don’t have the guns yet.”

Donald J. Trump is not only evil but dangerous. Have we seen a politician in my lifetime so willing to be violent? So willing to cause pain for his own sick enjoyment? What else will this horrible man do to further his goals? He’s already tried to augment his swagger with calls to “go further” than torture that included medically unnecessary nonconsensual penetration with a feeding tube.

We all have a responsibility to stop him. If, God forbid, as Trump suggests, resistance is an existential question, there are a number of us who are willing and able to take that risk.

He does not have power yet and if there are any good men left in the United States, in the armed forces, in homes and communities where decency reigns, he never will have the means to work out his craven blood fantasies.

https://nevertrump.com/

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A Long Comment On Roberts and Gender

Alastair Roberts has written a compelling conservative christian interrogation of popular cultural gender atrophy here: http://mereorthodoxy.com/why-we-should-jettison-the-strong-female-character/

This is a comment I left on the post about how we can sometimes confuse ourselves and use “differences” as cover for inequality. In hindsight it wasn’t exactly a “quick caveat”:

“Just a quick concern/caveat:

“Women’s greater natural orientation towards relational and caring activities leads to their underrepresentation within the more lucrative and powerful professions. Women are drawn to subjects and occupations that are more personal, artistic, and relational, while men to those that are more realistic, investigative, and thing-based. Despite the expense of considerable money and effort to change male and female preferences, they are surprisingly resistant to change in many respects.”

When we talk about being “drawn” we’ve left the biological for the intellectual and the application of the will. Even if there is a biological component (as speculated based on the gender demographics in different types of intellectual labor), it’s negligible when it can be overridden by the will which is not less than gendered but encompasses much more than a rote determinism.

There is a position that if an “average man” can’t read, he has simply not had enough schooling/enough resources to focus time on that. If an “average woman” can’t read, it’s her own fault? Absolutely not. It follows to other areas of intellectual labor as well.

That position is pretty close to the, until recently, rampant and enforced inaccurate belief about women and math. Math, like reading, is just a matter of language, syntax, logic and practice.

Then there is the problem of “money and effort to change” preferences. These very recent dollars with modest aims (usually subordinating getting girls involved with actual programs to mere awareness or buying tools/toys/resources in pink that already exist for boys) have nothing on the concentrated government spending on the educational prospects of soldiers and the informal culture shaping dollars that come from hours of popular science fiction for boys and not having to do as much housework as girls. Tinkering is commendable in boys but damnable as spinsterly in girls. Many STEM female empowerment programs are simply trying to achieve empowerment parity. The question is not empowerment at the expense of men but if women are even allowed into this technical informal social culture of men.

At my software internship, without any prompting from me, another employee in the office of dozens where only one woman worked started talking openly and frankly about octopus based anime pornography. Keep in mind that I was working in a conservative, middle american firm with many many Christians there. If at the most moral places this kind of thing happens, can you imagine what it’s like for women in less regulated spaces that are even more informal and cultural like the university. In my entire college software program there was less than half a dozen women, all undergrad students. Those demographics for any minority group with less pronounced differences than gender would provoke a “wait why?” question about systemic correctives.

The study you cite says that a major mediating factor in education tract choice/college major is interest and that interest divides in gender haven’t changed in the last 85 years. It also says that the number of women in STEM fields has gone up. So there is at least some artificial barrier for interest becoming reality for a number of women over those decades.

All this to say, I am very sensitive to anything that suggests different than the notion that the life of the mind is BUILT. Math, like literacy, is a built apparatus for flourishing and neither is tied to domesticity but both can be done from home.

Further, in places where there is no formal ‘building’ whatsoever in younger people, the capacity for integrating math/coding/ingenuity into greater humanities type projects/goals (ostensibly the natural domain of women) is impossible. These require a basic technical literacy. These projects that can be done in the home are simply not on the table. This is the most compelling place for empowering women, regardless if you agree with me that boys are informally conditioned more than girls to enjoy “deep play” with computers/math, because it’s at that level of basic understanding. Getting what’s in the book before seeing the cover.

Too many women have simply not tried these things, because they are not given a rudimentary mandatory technical grammar in elementary, middle and high-school. When it comes a time to choose, cultural shortcuts can take precedence to lived experience. Math, Science, Engineering, Software etc are not hard. Like every subject, they are built. They are the result of the applied will + time + resources + support. We can make the first element easier by providing the other three elements.

Given those things, anyone can do this. Whatever biological differences women have, they don’t necessitate inability or disprove discouragement, hostility or failures in educational systems’ preparedness.”

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Hail, Caesar!’s character sympathy and nested christian charity

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One of the best things about Hail, Caesar! is the internal film of the same name. Really all the pieces of the would-be throwback Hollywood classics, from the tap dancing to the pistol twirling to the giant water tank are incredible. The film’s namesake though is a specific case. Not just because of its content, ostensibly a “story of the christ”, but because its placement as a crown jewel, a prestige picture. This picture shares the values of one Eddie Mannix, the containing film’s main character whose responsibility it is to get the picture finished on time and budget.

An interesting little joke hiding in Hail, Caesar! is that there are a bunch of concatenations that serve to “fix” the biblical story. Presumably to make the film work better as an epic that appeals to the moderately religious modern man, a man that Eddie Mannix would be proud to show his film to to explain what he gets out of his worldview. What these bits really do is complicate and change the actual, biblical historical “story of the christ.” There are all sorts of timeline problems. The film opens with the Apostle Paul being converted by DIVINE PRESENCE on the road to damascus but somehow this interaction happens before the crucifixion and chronologically at the start of the film. Paul is described in voiceover as a humble merchant which jibes with Eddie’s capitalist bent but is a bit of a whitewash on his persecutorial zealous past. A whole chunk of the passion week is excised as Baird’s character meets Jesus at a well the day before his death. This is the kind of movie the kind of man Eddie Mannix makes. By telling the most charitable truthy story about a man like Mannix they either deliberately or incidentally make a fake movie that does the good gospel of our lord justice.

Having watched the film three times now, there has been a repeated reaction to that final speech by Baird. Anecdotally this has been confirmed by a cloud of witnesses as well. In my first viewing I was moved. In my second viewing, my stoic protestant brother gave a few microexpression-like hints that he was being moved. In my third screening, my christian friends were all enraptured, stunned at the sincerity.

This sincerity is made even more sincere by the undercut afterwards. When Baird forgets his line and he and his co-star complain about their itchy costumes we realize it’s not him. It wasn’t him that moved us. It was the message, it was that external truth that for a moment, in however convoluted way it was tapped, was in fact tapped.

In the movies, the Coens rightly posit incredibly charitable versions of people whose experience and worldview they do not themselves hold. This is what they are doing with Mannix. It’s Mannix’s movie and it’s Mannix’s beliefs that have made their way into the film. Mannix clearly cares about this moment, it’s why he cuts out of a possibly ruinous PR damage control situation early to see it performed. It’s why we see sincerity here. Even if it’s not sincere to the Coens, they let their characters be sincere.

An interesting, comparable case study for this phenomena is a character like Marlon Wayans’ Gawain MacSam in The Ladykillers. He is a black gangster who dies, shot with his own gun, because of his posturing towards violence. He never finds it within himself to pull the trigger. When the chips are down and he really needs to shoot someone, the Coens don’t let him actually cross that threshold by making Gawain see the little old lady who needs to get got as his mother. The hard face ends up being just a cartoon front.

While certainly presenting a black man as cartoonish could be deemed “problematic” I will deflect with a link to Marlon Wayans’ imdb to suggest that maybe there are mediating factors to consider before attacking the Coens about that.

The biggest difference between Mannix going to confession and MacSam going to the grave is honesty. Mannix is constantly trying to evaluate where he’s actually at. When MacSam is confronted about the moral stand he accidentally takes his response is to double down and threaten to give “a lead colonic” to J.K. Simmons’ character who challenges him with a few comedic morally backward inflammations like “you gotta accept your responsibilities and shoot that old lady” and “with equal rights comes equal responsibilities” further calling him a coward, telling him to “be a man.”

With Mannix the Coens don’t so much minimize his flaws as suggest they are just the kind of flaw you’ll get with a man like this and that there is a point to being as honest as you can about your own flaws. He hits a woman and a man but only confesses hitting the man. It seems as though the Coens in their charity know that there are things that a man like Mannix is going to miss.

There is even a suggestion in this film about the ultimate role or societal function of Hollywood’s mainstream populist epics. The priest’s advice to Mannix is also a statement about what Mannix is making happen in the internal Hail, Caesar! film. Mannix has a conscience that he listens to, in the same way that final monologue by Baird, will hopefully act as a conscience for the general population that Mannix knows will see the film. It’s information and entertainment but this element of uplift is tricky. You have to know where up is to go up. Ultimately there is a hope here for good. For good in the movies. For a world increasingly unmoored from morals of any kind, popular films that tell us “with great power comes great responsibility” act as a secular guide post that there is even such a thing as good and right in the world to listen for.

This film could even be read further as a defense of people like Mannix in Hollywood. The modern iteration of Mannix, christians simply trying to work a job and do good works in the picture business are people that some christians think are way too close to “the gay agenda” and “the other side” of the culture war that is “recruiting” our children. Most people are not auteurs or studio executives but rather small bit collaborators in an economic machine.

The relationship between Baird and Mannix is revealing, particularly the part when Baird says “never without a broad next to me” pointing at Mannix like they’ve talked about it before. This suggests that Mannix had to roll Baird back from men to women in his sexual pursuits. It’s a sexuality defined by the market. Mannix is the market’s enforcer. We know from the Scarlett Johansson subplot that this is a regular part of his job. This is ugly. What do we do with this ugliness.

The film is clear eyed but hopeful. Yes, Hollywood is a place where Jesus’ billing is uncertain (does he get to eat lunch as a principal or extra?). Yes, it is a place with competing interests that middle-americans and conservatives view as divorced from the real world (the communist writers). Yes, it is full of people who are empty headed (Baird). Yes, it has corruption and sexual misconduct (the directors of the films). Yes, it has people who might be legitimately unknowably nefarious while being charismatic as all hell (Channing Tatum).

But these people can be redeemed if they serve the picture. Whatever picture it is, what that says is what matters.

There is value in plain truth. The pursuit of “what is being said” can sometimes eclipse what is actually being said. Like sad internet illuminati theorists, christians sometimes look for hidden crosses in films by their favorite supposedly christian filmmakers and ignore the literal crosses in movies like Hail, Caesar! For many films, it’s all there in the text.

Simply by loving movies and telling a true story, by honestly presenting what a devout conservative catholic managerial type could be in classic Hollywood, the Coen’s have made a christian classic and a Hollywood triumph.

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The Witness, streaming and visual rewards

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Spoilers for The Witness below:

The Witness, the follow up to indie hit Braid, is a game that has been described as “Maze puzzles. Full stop.”

Unsurprisingly, The Witness is not an easily streamable game. “Maze puzzles” just doesn’t sound right. I mean, the technical infrastructure is there already. People are certainly doing it. It’s also true that some people will watch anything, even things not in any way suited for any kind of mass consumption.

The Witness fights what makes normal games work as video on the back end.

Triple-a games like call of duty have a very specific kind of rewatchability. There is this explosive recombinable textural element to it that can be summarized by this:

Caption: heads going boom

That video is a clip taken from the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s shockingly entertaining in context, less so pulled out for youtube. Watch it six more times and soon it becomes about as banal as anything you’ll find on the bizarre corner of youtube that is filled with fluid simulations.

Caption: fluid/fire simulation youtube

If we forget for a moment the sports broadcasting or radio jockey elements of let’s plays and streaming, we get something visually that is formed to a level just above the six watches deep contextless youtube blood fireworks.

The visual value add for a video of Call of Duty comes from the unpredictability. The new and varied timing and placement of the headshot melon blasts.

This visual recombination is just a hair different from actually playing the game. Video one ups traditional first person shooter gameplay by being able to showcase the “best” gameplay that is the fastest shots, tightest sequences and biggest booms. This is a fault of a system. A system that merely delivers visual noise.

The Witness offers something that mere content delivery misses. It’s so singular that it actually makes after the fact non-player content delivery tougher at least for anything other than solutions to puzzles (which ruin the puzzles). The Witness offers individuals specific context. Necessary to this context are restrained player instruction and visual rewards.

Player instruction? What player instruction? Absent a couple text prompts in the first minutes, you have to figure it all out yourself. It’s a healthy burden, one born of a desire for player initiative and necessary buy in.

The cliche has been written, “it’s not the destination…” but in The Witness it is a little bit about the destination. You wake up on a mystery island. After some preliminary line tests you can take a boat around it, you see your destinations. On of the great things about the open world aspect of the game is that you can go to all those places, their ledges and nooks, anywhere you could fit a moderately sized human. On this one man water tour an unavoidable towering geographic marker is the mountain.

Eventually found is a secret in the side of the mountain. There’s a print out of a line pattern that works as a code you can use to watch a lecture or interview about science in a windmill basement projection screen area. While these are fun bits that put words to the visual themes in the game, the real reveal, the real reward, is the view from the mountain hideaway. This reward is what I mean about restriction. There’s no dopamine hit. No craven attention grab. It has my attention and it knows. It’s simply a new angle. To the outside observer this amounts to a boring screenshot. It’s not faster. It’s not bigger. Things are smaller because of the great distance but that means many things fill our view. It’s what we’ve seen before but now wholistically, contextually rich. Lasers, the mark of basic puzzle sequence completions, rise up from the abandoned island.

Spaces for reflection, for realizing what you’ve done are wonderful. This moment is made better by all the moments that came before. Its culmination. A full breath completed by an exhale. Pulling any sequence of frames out for a video, or even pulling every frame out for a complete run through of the game is not sufficient. So much of the game happens inside of you. Inside your head. The connections just don’t show up on screen. But you see them. You’ll fail the little tests and exercises in the way that you know you fail tests and confuse problems. It’s like math. It’s process. While all math is the same, when you “do math” the diffuse principles and proofs find their places unique to you in your solution.

This context comes precisely because the game is so honest about what elements are “game” elements. In a traditional open world game some rote fetch quest would require us to use “gate” as a ludo-metaphor. The Witness has puzzles on literal gates and doors. New puzzles literally flip out from under a sequential stack as you complete them for your “next step forward” in the game.

In the end video I got you can see a person wake up, unplug himself (it’s just some sci-fi flavor as far as I can tell) and start exploring our world. This person is not adept at our mechanical language. It’s as if he has come from the game world itself! He traces geometric figures, follows lines, slowly learns something completely new. How to open a door? By twisting the knob!

Twisting is something I didn’t do at all in The Witness and I empathized with this stranger from the world of dots, lines and clean geometry coming into our considerably more complex and messy world.

We follow him through this knobbed door with the sense that these are something akin to a child’s first steps. Tonally it parallels leaving the starting tunnel in The Witness into the sunlight of the outdoors. Here the message of the game mechanics and the textural hints find their ultimate culmination. The raggedy old school educational films under the windmill and the audio log profundities about science, progress and observation suddenly make sense. They meet as if to say that there is a real world. Real and full of beauty with puzzles greater and more profound than the ones you just solved. The Witness is like life itself. What was true in the game is true here. Sometimes people or nature leave behind hints, there is a knowledge base to build off of. Sometimes life’s puzzles are obfuscated by decay and entropy. Sometimes we look and see something from an angle that only we have.

You owe it to yourself to give The Witness a chance and feel its simple pleasures of failure and wonder. This is a game where you have to be there to get it.

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