Friday, January 31, 2014

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Solomon chained.

In 2012, we were given multiple films about slavery, one about its abolition and the other plainly about its utter insanity, in the form of "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained": two films directed by premiere filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. This time, Steve McQueen ("Hunger" and "Shame"), a filmmaker who has steadily established himself throughout the past few years as a potent auteur, brings us "12 Years a Slave": a film that dares to strip 19th century slavery down to its bare essentials and examine the utter savagery that permeates its heart. 

Granted, "12 Years a Slave" is not an easy film to watch, as it contains plenty of racially discomforting scenes and is characterized by a sort of brutal realism that would make you feel awfully heavy all throughout. But as cliched as this may sound, this is perhaps one of the most eye-opening films about racism that I've seen. It is visceral, soulful, and even melancholic. It's without politics and gratuitous fantasy violence. It is sans sentimental speeches and a courageous, white man-slapping hero ala Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night" at its center. It is an ugly 2-hour portrait of racial oppression and inequality, sure, but what makes it even more heart-rending is the tragic character that exists in its core in the form of Solomon Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor with so much nuanced honesty that to just look at his suffering face is already painful enough to do. It's a film that will wrench your guts and twist your bones in anger, but at the same time, it will also move you to tears. Only a handful of films have made me so furious yet very much helpless, and this is definitely one of them.

The cast, comprised mainly of unknown but immensely talented African-American actors (watch out for Dwight Henry and QuvenzhanĆ©  Wallis of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" fame), have finely taken on the film's somber tone while also being intensely emotional in all the right moments without being overly dramatic. And if Chiwetel Ejiofor's devastating performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who was tricked into slavery (and who has also written the book from which this was based), was the film's heart and soul, Lupita Nyong'o's empathetic turn as Patsey is its flesh, blood, and bones. 

On the other hand, Michael Fassbender, who just never ceases to amaze everyone with his almost unreal acting skills, is pure evil as Edwin Epps, the cotton plantation owner that Solomon and company were unfortunate enough to be sold to. Perennially drunk, ever-amorous, and always armed with a whip and his tendencies to power trip, Epps is the worst kind of slaver (not that I'm saying that there were actually good ones). As crazy as this may sound, countless times have I wished for "Django Unchained's" King Schultz to just magically appear out of nowhere, saunter along Epps' cotton plantation, and just blow his brains out. But then again, this is not how films work. Trust me, though; you will surely have a desire to really rewatch "Django Unchained", what with its not-so-diplomatic way of getting rid of the slave trade, as a sort of natural post-viewing reaction. It's that infuriating a film.  

For some, "12 Years a Slave" may come across as a film that desperately asks for pity the same way beggars ask for alms, or perhaps unnaturally incites moral indignation the same way how films about anything remotely biblical upset hardcore believers. But what it is certainly not, for sure, is a film devoid of emotional power. For only 2 hours, the film was able to delineate the violent extent of bigotry, both in action and in words, without resorting to unnecessary discourses about the politics of the situation. The film is assured in its stance about racism, but its power comes not from the white characters' shocking utterances of the 'N' word or from the disturbing scenes involving slaves and whips but from the tranquil scenes of the laborers humming soulfully while harvesting cotton, singing sadly yet defiantly while they bury a dead colleague, and from scenes of them painfully trying to keep their human decency intact even in the face of inhumanity. And if ever the age of slavery has taught us anything, then it is the fact that it never hurts to once in a while look back in retrospect and reflect at things that ultimately matter. 

"12 Years a Slave", undoubtedly one of the best films of 2013, is hardly a crash course about the historical scope of slavery, or even a cinematic indictment of all its evils. Looking at it personally, the film is essentially a story of resilience in a time when hope usually gets swatted away by condescending slaps and skin-tearing whiplashes. And kudos to Steve McQueen, who has finally made a relatively mainstream film but was still able to preserve his trademark aesthetics (that unsettling long take when Solomon Northup is hanging on a tree), he has created another film, after "Hunger", that marvels at the strength of the human spirit and makes the pain of proving it seem yet again palpable and all too real.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

a.k.a. "The Douche of Debauchery Street"

From "The Great Ziegfeld" and "Citizen Kane" up to "Easy Rider" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt"; American cinema is definitely no stranger in tackling larger-than-life individuals taking on larger-than-life dreams and then subsequently disintegrating at the seams. It's a theme so common among American films that "The Wolf of Wall Street", the newest film by the great Martin Scorsese and was based on the novel of the same name by Jordan Belfort, seems awfully fresh and new yet so strangely familiar. After the great but very un-Scorsese-like "Hugo" (a film that felt like it was ghost-directed by Robert Zemeckis), fans will surely be delighted because, in many ways, this film once again showcases the Martin Scorsese we always knew, delirious and all, that has mysteriously went AWOL after 2006's "The Departed". 

Take note, though: "The Wolf of Wall Street" is not a colorful gangster film or even a cold period piece ala "Shutter Island". If Scorsese classics like "Goodfellas" and "Casino" were fly-on-the-wall looks at the hierarchical and systematic (not to mention bloody) operation of the Mafia, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a chaotic depiction of the alternate lives stockbrokers lead once the Benjamins start to pile up more than they can handle. It is as dark in its comedy as it is disturbing in its debauchery, and though the film can be viewed mostly as a study of immorality and the evils of money, the film also has the trademark 'cautionary' feel that radiates from almost all of Scorsese's gangster features. Remember Harvey Keitel's quote from "Mean Streets"? "You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home." This film forcefully begs to differ, for it suggests that you make up for them in luxury yachts and orgy rooms instead, while you snort the living hell out of everything that can be snorted.

Everything in the film, from the opening shot up until its sobering finale, screams 'Martin Scorsese' over and over again. But more specifically, it echoes "Casino" all too vividly, which makes the film nostalgic yet imbued with a 'been there, seen that' vibe, from the tracking shots to the strangely accommodating narration. Though on the up side, Scorsese himself should be more than commended for being able to handle a hard-hitting film with such smutty, hoop-de-doo imagery that perhaps only the combined forces of Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman in their heydays may dare to take on. And judging from its sprawling 3-hour running time, it is not too hard to infer that Martin Scorsese is, and I'm saying this with a devilish grin on my face, very much in love with the subject matter, which definitely validates some people's claims that the film glorifies excess. 

Well, perhaps it does, but it depends on who will see it. Frat boys, for instance, may go gaga about the more explicit scenes (add up their main man Jonah Hill's involvement) the same way how some '90s hip-hop artists have memorized by heart the lines from "Scarface" as if they are verses straight from the good book. The film is "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" all over again but without Hunter S. Thompson's aimless ramblings, and with a kind of resolution that will surely make you ponder if Gordon Gekko's "Greed is Good" speech in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" has any truth behind it. The film is very familiar on what it really wants to be (a morality tale about money), but also occasionally sidesteps with one shock-inducing sequence after another, and I'm not even complaining. Though it can be said that the film may have one sex and drug-related scene too many, its explicitness never crossed the boundaries of necessity. Visually, the film surely has gone way overboard at times to the point of being exploitative, but, as redundant as this may sound, the film's pointlessness is the point, and Scorsese could not have pulled it off more confidently. 

The cast, which has made the hedonistic script effortlessly feel more comedic and its epic running time shorter than it actually is, is flat-out brilliant if a bit scenery-chewing at times. In addition to that, Leonardo DiCaprio also unleashes what may perhaps be his finest performance in years as Jordan Belfort, thanks in part to his great chemistry with Jonah Hill, and also to his peculiar energy. Matthew McConaughey also shines in a brief role as DiCaprio's mentor of sorts. I hope I'm not the only one to have noticed this, but damn he looks like an anorexic Patrick Bateman in this film.

"The Wolf of Wall Street", though stylish, flashy, and a tad too promiscuous for a mainstream film, is still a powerful feature that proves once more the fact that Scorsese is still far from losing his mojo. More than anything else, the film is obviously a stylistic replication of Scorsese's own film "Casino", but it nonetheless reverberates with a kind of sexual and moral audacity seen and felt more in brave art house features than in typical Oscar front-runners. After all is said and done, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is far from being one of Scorsese's very best, but it definitely sits atop the slew of films he has churned out in the last 10 years or so. This is definitely not the film you would want to watch if you're an idealistic businessman or an aspiring millionaire that wishes no one harm. Go watch Macaulay Culkin's "Richie Rich" instead.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

On the Job (Erik Matti)

Hubarin mo ang iyong maskara, upang ikaw ay makilala...

Well, what can I say? The hype was definitely spot-on. Erik Matti, whose last work is the highly enjoyable, Grindhouse-like film "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles", has unexpectedly shifted gears, veering himself away from the fantasy/horror elements that have since become almost synonymous with his name, to direct what may be the most intense piece of local cinema that you may ever come across for quite a while. Though I can fully understand why this was not chosen to be the Philippines' official entry to the Academy Awards, I can also fully see why Erik Matti is quite sour about it. Do not get me wrong, "Transit", what with its highly international flavor and sensitive take on foreign policies in Israel, is a powerful film in its own right. But hell, "On the Job", at least for me, is on a different level. Though it can be fairly argued that the film is, in many ways, highly indebted to either "Infernal Affairs" or "The Departed" or even "Collateral" to a certain extent in terms of plot construction and visual texture, the film is nonetheless a shining example of how to do a modern 'Pinoy' action film right. I mean, let's admit it, gone are the action movie days where a straight-laced cop played by either FPJ or Rudy Fernandez can bring down an entire system by just using his gun-toting coolness and pure brawn. Also, the era where action heroes and conniving villains ultimately settle their moral differences inside abandoned warehouses has already come and go. 

For the past few years, the action genre is as good as dead, and no filmmaker dared to lift a finger. I don't know if Matti did this film to, in a way, resuscitate it, but, hey, I don't care, because what he has created here is way more than a decent action film. As God is my witness, what I've seen is a masterpiece not just in terms of action and plot swerves, but also in terms of tension and fear. It's a thriller film without monsters in the closet, a crime film with little to no involvement from criminals, and a gangster film without actual gangsters. Perhaps the reason why 'gangster' films can never really make it big here in the Philippines (except for E.R. Ejercito's MMFF projects, of course, which are also occasional flops) is because one must not look any further than our local police force if one wants to see an actual gang operate. That, I think, is what "On the Job" is pessimistically trying to prove: that the Philippines is, and will always be, run by thugs regardless if they're wearing uniforms or not. But then again, it has been said that "pessimists are just optimists with better information", so I wouldn't entirely count out the possibility that Erik Matti himself has actually taken hold of some 'juicy' insider information about our police force while researching for the film. After all, the film is, quote unquote, "inspired by true events" so, yeah, on second thought, color me surprised if he actually has not. But still, with or without that 'juicy' information to make the film look more frighteningly legit, this one still rocks.

In terms of its visual style, the film is very, very (and I'm going to add another 'very') detailed, roughed-up, and ruggedly red-blooded. There's this scene in the film where both Tatang (Joel Torre in one of his best performances ever, bar none), a veteran hitman, and Daniel (Gerald Anderson in a great turn if not for his 'Thigalog'), the young man under his tutelage, enters a 'litsunan' somewhere in the heart of Manila to search for their poor target. With freshly-roasted swines on bamboo sticks sitting everywhere, of course, it's but an obvious symbolism on Matti's, or even production designer Richard Somes', part: that the act that these two characters are about to commit can be likened to a butcher slaughtering a pig. But outside that thematic configuration, of course, the entire atmosphere of the 'litsunan', and eventually the entirety of Manila itself, seems to slowly take on a life of its own ironically as people start to drop dead. 

Aside from the characters, everything in this film, though it is but given that "On the Job" deals largely with corruption, anxiety, and everything dreadful, feels so alive. Another case in point: the almost visually baroque rendition of the prison and how the camera glides across every hallway and room like it's some kind of a doomed labyrinth.  I know, 'poetic' is not the right term to describe the film's imagery, and neither is the word 'lyrical' (Ugh, I feel so pretentious right now). More than anything else, I think 'inspired' is the correct word. Then again, what do you expect when Erik Matti and Richard Somes ("Yanggaw", "Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang") join forces? 

Though Manila has been seen in different kinds of light all throughout the history of Philippine cinema, I've never been intimidated of its false sense of nobility (the honorable-looking police headquarters, posh hotel lobbies, and exquisite function rooms) and frightened of its abundant squalor more than here in "On the Job". I've seen my fair share of 'poverty porn' films, mind you, and these pictures have made me trust the said city less and less. But never have I seen Manila in such a state where morality seems only applicable to dogs, where blood can be shed everywhere even on dank sidewalks, and where people can die at any given time even at the comforts of their own hospital beds. Corruption is one thing, sure, but killing is another. "On the Job" may be a little bit vague about the former (the ostensibly 'straight' characters in the film doesn't really go into detail except for them stating several times that they do not want the 'mess' to reach MalacaƱang), but the 'killing' part? Well, what can I say? It will make you  squirm, shout profanities on whoever's next to you and then at the screen, and then squirm and shout and squirm some more. And for an action film to manage to do that? That's magic. This is the kind of filmmaking that Hitchcock, I think, was pertaining to when he once said that he enjoys playing the audience like a piano.  

The cast, comprised of seasoned veterans, is a joy to watch, as they interact in ways that may either make you smile a bit (Joey Marquez & Piolo Pascual), get a little achy in the stomach (Gerald Anderson & Joel Torre), or downright feel helpless (Piolo Pascual & Leo Martinez). Going back to my "The Departed" comparison, "On the Job" is also mounted the same way in terms of character arrangement. In "The Departed", there was Jack Nicholson serving as the Qui-Gon Jinn to Matt Damon's Obi-Wan Kenobi. On the other hand, there's Martin Sheen's Pat Morita to Leonardo DiCaprio's Ralph Macchio. Like "The Departed", "On the Job" is also a 'mentor-apprentice' film. There's Piolo Pascual's Francis Coronel Jr., an NBI agent whose puppet master of a father-in law, Manrique (Michael de Mesa), controls and dictates his every move like a dirty conscience. There's also Tatang, who not so sparingly teaches the neophyte hitman Daniel the very careful ways of killing people as if it's the most immaculate thing in the world. Now I wouldn't be a bummer here and feed you specific details and spoil your enjoyment of the film, but for the record, let's just say that these four characters will inevitably cross paths and unwittingly add fuel to the already scorching fire.

"On the Job", though ironically not for everyone, MUST be seen by everyone. It's the kind of film that may put people off with its themes but will nonetheless still persist to be seen, experienced, and then some. The film will shock, thrill, and even offend (what with its abundant use of our national expletive), but what it definitely won't do is disappoint. But if ever there's one thing I sorely regret about this film, then it is my failure to watch it on the big screen. Indie films may come and go, but this one's here to stay. Who knows? If this is the start of a new breed of Filipino action films, then our Pinoy movie diet for the next few years is already taken care of, and we only have Erik Matti, once the master of B-grade horror and fantasy films but is now shaping up to be a true action auteur in his own right perhaps ala Luc Besson, to thank for it. This one's an instant classic.

P.S. Erik Matti once did an interview for the Cinema One documentary "Indie, Mainstream, Paano Ka Ginawa?" where he stated that he hates it when international film festivals treat Filipino films as nothing but 'exotic dishes'. "Kumbaga, tayo yung balut," he then contemptuously added. With this film, in all fairness, I think he has preserved his stance regarding this issue. Not only has he created a Filipino film truly worthy of international attention, but he has also crafted something that's entirely of universal appeal. You want proof? Well, a Hollywood remake is already on its way.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

Girls just want to have fun.

It's one thing for a film to show life's heartaches in all its tearful, emotional glory, but it's altogether another for it to look at everything as if they're all but punchlines of a very funny story. The latter, I think, is always the more difficult one to pull off, and "Frances Ha" did just that without even figuratively letting out sweat. Throughout the film, there are hints about love and sex and relationship, but it's really more about the bumbling life of this girl named Frances, played with an entertaining kind of passive-aggressiveness by Greta Gerwig, and her bittersweet struggles through the 'black and white' metropolis of existence, all while these three crumble in front of her very eyes. 

Despite it being a story of a modern woman who we can pretentiously brand as some kind of a bird whose feather is just too bright for her own good, the film is unexpectedly brimming with so much naivety that you can excuse her foibles not just because it's cute and all but because we can understand her blunders. Frances may not necessarily be likable in the same way the characters portrayed by Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston (then again, I'm not saying that you should like them in the first place) in all those junk chick-flicks out there are, but in her, I can sense someone real and breathing and very, very tangible. She's the kind of character who you can normally bump into on some busy avenue, share a brief smile with, and then be both on your way. 

As far as I'm concerned, Frances is as real as any modern female character can get, and it's very smart to show this honesty without reducing and locking her up within a basic 'girl meets boy' plot. "Frances Ha" is, for the record, a love story, but not between two very specific people but more with life itself, and how just wandering through it, sans responsibilities, will inevitably lead you into finding both what you really are and what you're not. And though I have this great urge to brand "Frances Ha" as a film about 'friendship' (between Frances and her best friend, Sophie), really, it's not. I even want to go out of my way and label the film as a comedy but it's really more concerned with the honest-to-goodness dramatic bummers of a twenty-something woman and not with some of her inconsequential quirks ala Wes Anderson. In retrospect, "Frances Ha" really is a film that's almost impossible to categorize simply because it works as some kind of a romance-drama-comedy genre hybrid without really being any of them because it's really just, all along, about this carefree woman who's merely being herself.     

As much as possible, I don't want to reference Woody Allen in my reviews of dramedy films because it's just too ho-hum to do so, but "Frances Ha", minus the almost disturbing dose of neurosis and cynicism, is perhaps what a Woody Allen film may look like if he's a little less world-weary, less redundantly psychoanalytical, and, yes, a tad less sexual. Directed by "The Squid and the Whale's" Noah Baumbach, the film is, just like the aforementioned 2005 indie sleeper, is virtually plotless and its cast not much acting but merely being themselves while saying trivial things that, when you think of it, actually matters. Case in point: The scene where Frances describes, half-drunk,what she really wants in a relationship. That's just pure movie magic right there. 

The script (co-written by Gerwig herself), in all its looseness, is very effective in impeccably highlighting Frances' aimless pursuit of dancing and, subsequently, happiness as a whole. Though some women may not like it if I declare Frances as 'what a modern woman should look and act like" (especially today where the archetypal 'empowered woman' is the 'in' thing this side of the glass ceiling), I think it is but right to brandish her with such a label because, hey, she's as imperfect as imperfect can be, and isn't modern living?

In "Frances Ha", there's no story but only Frances' life, there's no love but only her idealized concept of it, and there's no actual, concrete friendship but only her dreams of, one day, having such that would never go away. And her goal? To dance and choreograph. Perhaps she's too naive and awkward and a notch too 'undateable' to choreograph and orchestrate an entire production number let alone her very life as it happens, but Frances couldn't care less. Sometimes, at least for her, to want something without ever enacting upon it may just be enough because, sooner or later, it CAN just happen, all while she's having fun with herself and making fun of what she is and what she cannot be. As one of the staple sayings of this 'Tumblr' generation goes: "She saved everyone but couldn't save herself." But wait, Frances is not the martyr type, and no, she's really not keen on saving anyone, so read that quote again the other way around and you will pretty much have the idea of what Frances' "aimless goal" in life ultimately is. Shite. Freakin' oxymoron right there. 


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Saturday, January 4, 2014

The World's End (Edgar Wright)


They've survived through the onslaught of shambling zombies, have fought against a band of dead-eyed villagers, and have even starred together in that alien film entitled "Paul". To say that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, whose on-screen partnership traces as far back as the 1999 TV series "Spaced", have done everything there is to do as far as 'genre' comedy films are concerned is an understatement, and so is saying that my anticipation about this film is merely high. Being a big, big fan of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" (I have also seen episodes of "Spaced" and quite loved them as well), I felt a stab of definite fanboy defeat after finding out that this film will not be shown in theaters here in the Philippines. "The World's End", the final chapter in Edgar Wright's "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy (or alternately called as the "Cornetto" trilogy), has giant boots to fill, especially considering the fact that the two preceding films were runaway successes both critically and commercially. 

Like Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises", "The World's End", pre-release, is in a very delicate position of either delivering or flat-out failing. And if I'm Edgar Wright, I wouldn't forgive myself if the film bombs, for it will forever be a blemish on my resume and will further support most people's claims that trilogies can only succeed so much. Fortunately, however, just like the first two films, this one's just as fun if a little less clever. Granted, the film is easily the weakest of the three, but it is thankfully still the kind of product that I would always expect from the Wright-Pegg-Frost combo. Honestly, I want more from these three.

Though the film, in its entirety, is in every way just as visually dazzling as "Shaun" and "Hot Fuzz", what lacks is the utter ingenuity in the storytelling department, even if the film is quite original in bringing about the apocalypse within the context of such a harmless pub crawl. But aside from that and the intensely enjoyable performances by the whole cast, the film is surprisingly without much narrative swerves, bar the unexpectedly elegiac ending, of course. 

What elevates the film, though, in terms of quality, is the way how Simon Pegg has (almost) single-handedly carried the film through with his jumpy gift for comedy. It's also interesting to note that he has essentially switched characters with Nick Frost, who we know see as a straight-laced, no-nonsense character, while he is now the alcoholic slacker of a character that the latter is more accustomed in playing. His name is Gary King, a directionless drunkard/recovering addict who has cunningly deceived his now white-collared friends (played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan) into attempting with him once more the epic pub crawl that they have failed to finish some 20 odd years ago. 

For his friends, the pub crawl is merely a cordial outlet to catch up with each other, the beer pints being secondary. For King, the crawl is everything that's left of his wasted life and his obviously damaged liver. But for the mysterious populace of the town in which the pubs are situated, well, this little beer-drinking escapade is an itch that needs to be scratched. After all, what nuisance a bunch of drunkards can really be, especially if they will be but foils to a very sci-fi master plan, right? So, yes, what ensues is a combination of desperate hilarity, alcoholic frenzy, and blue-blooded (literally) eschatological badassery. Oh, and did I mention that the film involves some type of extraterrestrial craziness that perfectly complements, in an odd way, the film's display of inebriated fun? 

"The World's End", despite its shortcomings, is mischievous and wildly fast-paced, and is Wright's thoroughly enjoyable attempt in picturing the funny side of both the apocalypse itself and the days that follow; that is with pints and pints of booze, some dose of melodrama, and a bunch of paranoia-inducing quips. And trust me, the film's final 5 or so minutes alone has enough strength to completely blow the entirety of Roland Emmerich's world-destroying oeuvre out of the water. It's that good of an 'end of the world' film, that effective of a comedy-drama hybrid, and that powerful a playful cinematic vision of what's in store for humanity in the end is. And as much as it is a stand-alone science fiction film, it's also uninhibited in paying a nice tribute to its obvious influences, namely "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers". When you've seen that robot near the end, haven't you immediately thought of Gort? Did you not unconsciously insinuate that Donald Sutherland may appear as one of the aliens? And, finally, did you not feel a little "Twilight Zone-y" during the climactic confrontation between King and the 'alien boss' (I'll just call it that)? 

With all of its unconscious references to classic science fiction films, its almost parable-like unraveling of the characters' friendship, and its quick-witted script that just won't quit with its well-formulated banters, "The World's End" may just be one of the most entertaining and unexpectedly emotional films of 2013. What's only slightly disappointing, though, is the fact that it's not really as 'great' as "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz". But hey, if this is how the world will really end, count me in as one of those crazed (not to mention bearded and hygienically-challenged) doomsday prophets that will excitedly warn you about it.

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