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Jason and the Argonauts

Just OK
I was six years old when "Clash of the Titans" was released in 1981. I was obsessed with that movie and would watch it every time it came on T. V. Not too long ago, I sat down to watch it with my kids, sure that they would be as mesmerized by it as I was all those years ago. Watching it through their eyes, though, I realized that it's....well.....just not a very good movie. It's a product of its time, and it still has a special nostalgic place in my heart, but I can see why my kids didn't take to it.

I have to believe their reaction to "Clash of the Titans" is similar to my reaction to "Jason and Argonauts." I watched this on TCM, with an intro by Dennis Miller and Dana Carvey who were both totally fanboy crushing on this movie. Carvey said he was eight when it was released and seeing it in a theater was one of the seminal movie going experiences of his life. I get it, because that's how I feel about "Clash of the Titans." But their enthusiasm for this movie greatly outstripped my enjoyment watching it.

It's fun enough, and I always enjoy special effects from movies before computers existed to do any and everything. The ones in this movie are courtesy of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, who was also responsible for "Clash of the Titans," and they're largely the reason that this movie has the same vibe as "Titans." But I was largely disengaged from this movie for most of its running time.

Grade: B-

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Diminishing Returns
My introduction to the films of Sam Peckinpah was "The Wild Bunch." I was blown away by it, and it's still one of my favorite movies. Then I saw "Straw Dogs," which I didn't like as much, but still liked a lot. Since then, I've seen "The Getaway" and "White Dog," neither of which I much liked. I bailed on "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," as I realized about ten minutes into it that I was just not in the mood for the kind of movie it was. So for me it seems like I saw the best Peckinpah first and since then it's been a matter of diminishing returns.

A younger me might have liked "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" more, back when I wanted all of my movies to be gritty and violent and full of that specific brand of 1970s grunge. But the me now doesn't enjoy this kind of pointless, nihilistic nastiness. I don't know what I'm supposed to take away from this movie, other than a feeling of awfulness and that I need a shower. The film is so relentlessly macabre and bleak that it tips occasionally into the ludicrous, making me wonder if the whole thing is supposed to be experienced as a dark -- very dark -- comedy. But if it is, Peckinpah was not the man to capture the delicate balance of tone that a comedy this dark needs to be successful.

I will give him credit for having the cajones to make such an uncompromising film. Whatever else you say about this movie, you can't say that it isn't bold. And while I didn't really enjoy the act of watching it, it did make an impression on me when thinking back on it. But it's not a movie I'd ever want to revisit, and I don't know that I'm even interested anymore in exploring any of the Peckinpah films that I haven't yet seen.

Grade: B.

The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France

Shakespeare Just Makes for Boring Movies
Shakespeare just doesn't work on screen, at least not in his original, undiluted form.

Laurence Olivier tries very hard to change my mind about that with "Henry V," using an admittedly creative device to highlight what cinema can do for Shakespeare that the stage can't. But despite that, we're still mostly left with a bunch of static speeches delivered reverently. There are just so many words used to express an idea, which worked fine on the stage in 1600 when no one had anywhere better to be, but makes for a dull movie.

I will say that Olivier creates one of the most meta versions of a Shakespeare adaptation I've seen. The film begins with a production of "Henry V" being performed at the Old Globe Theatre in 1600. This shows us what it would have been like for audiences at the time to experience Shakespeare's plays. But it's not just a filmed version of the play. It's more like a documentary of a production of "Henry V," as the camera goes backstage to follow the actors in between scenes, showing them changing costumes, swigging drinks, etc. A narrator comes on stage and asks the audience to use their imaginations in bringing this epic story to life, apologizing for the limitations of the theatre. Then about twenty minutes in, the film opens up to become an outright movie version of "Henry V," moving the action to the battlefields of France.

Cool conceit, but it doesn't help much to bring the story to life. I'd never read this particular play or any of the plays in the series leading up to it, so the first half hour of the film was damn near incomprehensible to me. My takeaway after 30 minutes was that England was declaring war on France, but I was foggy on why, other than that the French king insulted Henry by sending him a box of tennis balls. I didn't even know they had tennis back then, but there you go. After that, it's mostly just battle scenes and soliloquies about the responsibility kings have to their followers. There's a lot about the might of England, to be expected since this movie, like every movie made between 1941 and 1945 or so, was repurposed as WWII propaganda, no matter what the intentions of the source material were.

The film ends with Henry marrying a French princess, which left me wondering whether that meant he was also king of France, and if not, who was? More than anything, this movie made me realize how little I know about medieval history.

I never enjoy Shakespeare adaptations, so I don't know why I keep trying. I was intrigued by this one because it is so famous as a rallying cry to the British people against Germany in 1944, and because it was nominated for four Oscars, a couple of big ones too: Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Color Art Direction, and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score. It didn't win any competitive awards, but Olivier was given a special award by the Academy for bringing the film to the screen.

Grade: B-

French Exit

Maybe Cinema Is Dead
Ugh, if I have to sit through one more dreary movie. Maybe cinema IS dead after all.

It's like the writer and director of "French Exit" went about making their own respective movies without consulting each other at all. The writer thought he was making a zany dark comedy in the "Harold and Maude" vein, while the director slaps the comedy down at every turn and opts instead for a morose, joyless, and droning movie that doesn't even have the courtesy to make sense.

This is another in the long line of movies that gives us a character some other character wants to not be in love with but can't help being in love with, to the point that she flies all the way to Paris to reclaim him, despite the fact that the person she's in love with is lacking a single quality that would make anyone love him in the first place. Michelle Pfeiffer gives glimmers of a feisty performance, but she's undermined by the material, and her character doesn't have any arc. The film brings together a random assortment of characters who all inexplicably sleep over nightly at Pfeiffer's apartment, despite the fact that they all are adults and have homes of their own. I'm sure we're supposed to think this is quirky and adorable, but it's irritating as hell.

The only character I came close to wanting to spend time with was Valerie Mahaffey, as a daffy but endearing friend who's adopted by Pfeiffer and her blank slate of a son (Lucas Hedges). I don't know why she wanted to be around these people, and the movie never gives us a good reason either.

What a total failure.

Grade: D-


Terribly Executed
A slam bang premise is destroyed by terrible execution in this dreary sci-fi sludge.

The most awkward set up ever finds Anthony Mackie, whose character is dying of cancer, dabbling with a drug that allows users to zip to other points in time. He wants to find the daughter of his partner and best friend, played by Jamie Dornan, who looks like he wants to be anywhere but in this movie. She took the drug, went back in time, but got stuck there, because that can happen. The exposition and drama is doled out in haphazard chunks, the film flirts with racial themes about the difference between how white people and black people view the past, nothing coheres with anything else, and to top it all off the film looks terrible, like the whole thing was smothered in colorless gravy.

Mackie tries mightily to do something, anything, with this movie, but he's let down by virtually every single other aspect of the film. Dornan comes as close to being embalmed that a human being can be without being actually embalmed. There are a couple of moments (that scene with the wooly mammoth!) that tease us with the promise of what could have been, which are mostly just cruel because of what we're actually given.

Grade: D.

Raya and the Last Dragon

Going Through the Motions
The animation is absolutely dazzling, but otherwise this movie just goes through the motions. There are a lot of platitudes about trust and tolerance that we've heard a million times before -- same book, different cover.

Grade: B.

El √°ngel exterminador

The Ultimate Pandemic Movie
"The Exterminating Angel" is the ultimate COVID-19 pandemic movie.

A bunch of swells attend a dinner party. An offer made by the host to the guests to spend the night, an offer which everyone knows isn't supposed to be accepted, is, and, social codes being disrupted, calamity ensues. The guests become trapped together in the same room for four days, and their good manners and propriety gradually dissolve away until they're all acting like a bunch of savage lunatics.

Though made in the 1960s, "The Exterminating Angel," like all good films, is so astute about human nature that it feels as relevant now as it did then. The world seems full of a bunch of privileged people who have the luxury to go through life oblivious to the world around them. But then a pandemic hits, and they're freaking out about toilet paper.

I happened to watch this film a day or so after watching another Bunuel film, "Diary of a Chambermaid." Together, the two films serve as a withering denunciation of the middle class, whether it be in early 20th Century France, Spain of the 1960s, or the America of today.

Grade: A.

Le journal d'une femme de chambre

Couldn't Stop Thinking About It
I wasn't sure I much liked "Diary of a Chambermaid" while I was in the middle of watching it, but I couldn't stop thinking about the movie after it was over. Then I watched "The Exterminating Angel," another of Bunuel's films from around the same time, and decided that I loved both of them. Though made in the 1960s and about French and Spanish bourgeois hypocrisy, they both speak so much to what's happening in America right now. The rise of extremist right-wing ideology, the increasing socioeconomic disparity, the obliviousness of a privileged class to the larger world around them.

Jeanne Moreau is sensational as the world-wise maid from the big city who's already seen it all and becomes an object of affection (or at least of lust) for just about every man she comes across in a country estate. A little girl is sexually violated and murdered, and Moreau's character suspects one of the men working on the estate. She undertakes an investigation of her own, even going so far as to promise to marry him so that she can get close enough to expose him. The plot is outrageous and perhaps even a bit nonsensical to see written down on paper, but it's all played matter of factly and deadpan -- there isn't any of the surreal hijinks that Bunuel is famous for. And then there's that last scene, that takes your breath away like a punch to the gut, and makes you wonder whether the film all along hasn't been at all about what you thought it was about and instead is about something else entirely.

"Diary of a Chambermaid" might try the patience of a more casual movie watcher, as it's off kilter in a way foreign films from that time period just were, but for those who stick with it it more than rewards that patience.

Grade: A.


Dull Exotic Adventure Movie
A dull and terribly cast Technicolor extravaganza that cashes in on the 1940s film audience's appetite for movies set in exotic and foreign locations.

Only this exotic and foreign location was completely built in a studio, with the plastic, garish results you would expect. This movie is so boring I can barely muster up the energy to say anything about it, and it's hard for me to believe anyone would enjoy watching it. I guess if you're a fan of a particular star in it, like Marlene Dietrich, for example, or Ronald Colman, there's at least that. Not much else to recommend it.

"Kismet" scraped together four Academy Award nominations in 1944, but back then nominations in all of the technical categories were tossed out like confetti, so they don't mean much. Nevertheless, it scored in the categories of Art Direction (Color), Cinematography (Color), Dramatic or Comedy Score, and Sound Recording. It didn't win anything, which is as it should be.

Grade: D.

The Green Knight

Bold Experiment Is a Misfire
I think I just don't like Dev Patel.

I haven't liked a single movie he's yet been in (loathed "Slumdog Millionaire," barely tolerated "Lion") but I wasn't sure whether it was him that was the problem or the movie around him.

Maybe it's a bit of both, because while I don't like him in "The Green Knight" either, I'm not sure the movie around him would have worked even with a different actor. It's a bold experiment from David Lowery, who's now done one movie I adored ("A Ghost Story") and one I hated ("A'int Them Bodies Saints"). I didn't hate this one, but it really tested my patience, and I was mostly done with it by the time it was over.

It's one of those episodic quest movies, and it's dully repetitive. Hero comes across some strange, magical character or situation, hero must solve some riddle, hero moves on to next strange, magical situation. It's all very one note and so dreamlike that it has no narrative momentum. Watching it, I was like, "Ok, now this arbitrary thing is just happening," to the point that late in the film, when our hero comes across a herd of giants marching toward the horizon and hitches a ride on one of them, I barely registered the wonder of it, because it seemed just as random as anything else happening.

I did like the sleight of hand at the end of the film, the glimpse of what might have been and then the punchline of the film's last line. But by that time I had checked out and the creative ending couldn't overcome my overall lackluster reception of everything that had come before.

Grade: C.


Pixar Goes LGBTQ+
"Luca" is Pixar's boldest attempt yet at an LGBTQ+ friendly film, though apparently it's still subtle enough (hard for me to believe) for the gay themes to go right over a viewer's head. My mom, for instance, didn't catch any of it at all.

I had low expectations going in, but I found this movie to be very sweet and pretty delightful. Jacob Tremblay does terrific voice work as Luca, and the relationship between the two male characters at the story's center, whether you choose to read it as a coming out story or just a very close bond, is touching without being aggressively manipulative in that way Pixar movies can sometimes be.

Plus, the pasta in this movie looks soooooo good that my family went on an Italian food binge for about a week after seeing it.

Grade: A.


Best Seen While Drunk
Probably best enjoyed with a drunk audience at a midnight showing somewhere. Not ideal for watching by yourself in the snug comfort of your own home. The urge to sleep instead of finishing the film becomes almost irresistible.

Louisa from "The Sound of Music" proves why the hills stopped being alive for her career, while Bradford Dillman plays the 1970s version of a macho man, which means he wears flannel shirts and a beard. If this movie were made today, he'd shave all of his body hair.

This movie is so incompetently made that it's nearly incomprehensible. I wasn't expecting "Schindler's List," but I was expecting it to be better than this. After all, Joe Dante made "Gremlins," which at least felt like an actual movie with scenes strung together in a way that made sense. "Piranha" feels like random things just happening with no effort on anyone's part to justify them all being in the same movie.

Grade: F (It's a two-star "F," not a one-star "F," because, bad as it is, I've still seen worse)

Princess O'Rourke

Dull Propaganda
I have almost nothing to say about this movie. It's a really dull WWII propaganda film masquerading as a light-hearted romantic comedy. Olivia de Havilland's natural charm is diluted to the point that she barely appears to be breathing through most of the film, while Robert Cummings is bland as can be as the leading man.

This film inexplicably won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1943. I've seen all of the nominees from that year, and any of the other four were more worthy winners.

Grade: C.

Life Is Sweet

Slice of Life Leigh
I was surprised to find that I hadn't already posted a review of "Life Is Sweet," as I saw it years ago. I just re-watched it so figured I'd add my own two cents. Better late than never.

I will admit that I remembered the film as being better than I found it on a second viewing. I still very much enjoyed it, but it is obvious now that Mike Leigh matured as a writer and director after making this film, and any number of other films from more recent years, anything from, say, "Topsy-Turvy" to "Another Year," feels more satisfying to me. But still, this is a touching slice of life movie as only Mike Leigh can make, full of weird misfit characters who all seem like they're slightly deranged when the movie starts, but who gradually turn into fully fleshed out human beings over the course of the film.

Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent are a hoot as the married couple at the film's center, and Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks are equally exceptional as their daughters. A highlight of the film is the scene in which Steadman's mom gives her troubled daughter a what for. One extremely wink link in the cast is Timothy Spall, playing such an exaggerated grotesque of a character that he nearly ruins the movie. Leigh really should have dialed him back. Without him, I probably would have had a much better reaction the second time through than I did.

Grade: A-

Four Daughters

Showcase for Priscilla Lane
This Michael Curtiz directed film from 1938 doesn't add up to much more than a showcase for Priscilla Lane, though it is probably more known now for launching the career of John Garfield.

Lane's two sisters are in the film too, playing....well....her sisters, but they fade into the background. The main plot revolves around Lane wanting to marry one guy but not doing it because her sister is in love with the same fella, so she marries John Garfield instead, who bores her to death by constantly moping about what a loser he is. Conveniently, the movie does away with him so that Lane can marry the guy she really wants without feeling guilty. And even better, her sister decides she wasn't in love with him that much anyway and gets a different guy of her own. Yay, everyone gets a man!

It's not surprising that this movie has a completely inconsequential plot, seeing as it was based on a short story that appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine. What is more surprising is that anyone thought enough of it to nominate it for five.....yes, five.....Academy Awards, including Best Picture(!). Curtiz received a Best Director nomination, one of two he received that year (the other for "Angels with Dirty Faces"), while Garfield was the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar until Walter Brennan won it instead. The film's other two nominations were for Best Screenplay and Best Sound Recording.

Grade: B-

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Rousing and Energetic
I'm not generally a fan of concert films, and "Summer of Soul" did go on a bit longer than I had patience for, but of films like it it's a great example of the genre.

The film makes a point of comparing the Harlem music festival to Woodstock, which took place in the same year. We remember Woodstock well -- it was even the subject of a documentary that won the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 1970 -- but who's ever heard of this black music festival? And it's even more jaw dropping because of the talent on the stage: Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone. The difference is that Woodstock was a celebration of music while this festival turned into a cry of rage, hope, anger, and action within the black community. It's like the people singing at this festival were literally singing for their lives and for the lives of all black people.

The galvanized energy that people in the crowd were feeling at the time and that they talk about all these years later comes through in the rescued footage. You can feel the electricity and chemistry between the performers and the crowd. A highlight of the film is the performance of Nina Simone, who is absolutely captivating. A person who was there says that watching her come onstage was like watching an African princess, and you can see what she's talking about.

Grade: A.

The Sea Wolf

Serviceable Adaptation
A serviceable adaptation of a Jack London book I didn't take much to in the first place. To be honest, I can't remember the book that well so I can't comment on how faithful the movie is, if that's important to you. Edward G. Robinson is watchable as ever as the tyrannical captain of a fishing vessel, an overdone character type in books and movies if ever there was one, but he's Edward G. Robinson so he manages to put his own original stamp on it. John Garfield and Ida Lupino are a couple of strangers who meet on the ship and team up when things start to unravel. The most interesting character and performance for me was the hoity toity writer played by Alexander Knox.

Michael Curtiz is lauded now as such a talented director of the studio era, and I'm not saying he's wasn't, but his direction here doesn't seem like anything special.

"The Sea Wolf" earned an Oscar nomination in 1941 for Best Special Effects.

Grade: B+

Cry of the City

Strong, Strong Noir
A strong, strong film noir that stars Richard Conte as a wounded crook who escapes from the hospital and Victor Mature as the cop who's trying to chase him down for murder.

The strength of this particular noir is in the tense direction from Robert Siodmak and the performance by Conte, who does much more with a stock villain role than he needs to. There are a couple of memorable smaller female performances, one by Shelley Winters as a former girlfriend of Conte's, and, most notably, another by Hope Emerson as a fellow member of the criminal underworld. Emerson's character is a jewel thief, which is fitting, since Emerson the actress threatens to steal the movie right out from under everybody else, Conte included.

Mature isn't one of my favorite actors, but he's well suited to a role like this, and he does nicely by it.

Grade: A-

Killer's Kiss

Every Shot Is Remarkable
In introducing "Killer's Kiss" on TCM, host Eddie Muller apologized all over himself for what a ragged, experimental film it was from newbie director Stanley Kubrick. But the thing is, as Muller himself pointed out, inexperienced Kubrick is still better than the best film of any number of other directors, so this one's a treat.

It's ragged to be sure, and it's clear that Kubrick had the outlines of a film that he then padded out to feature length proportions, but there's hardly a shot in the the thing that isn't remarkable in some way. It's my favorite kind of noir -- dripping in atmosphere, plot incidental (though there are some clever developments in the story), tough guy meter set to 11. There's a somewhat famous climactic fight scene set in a mannequin factory that's clearly used for its weirdness only, and the whole film is like that.

Many shots from this movie are used in TCM's intro montage to their late-night programming.

Grade: A-

Hell Drivers

Mario Kart
"Hell Drivers" is like a 1950s black and white British version of Mario Kart, so do with that what you will.

Two alpha males vie for dominance among a bunch of truckers with death wishes. The whole movie is really just scenes of them driving as fast as they can back and forth between a factory and a shipping yard, and trying to screw each other up along the way. It's not a film noir, but it looks like one. The print I saw on TCM was dingy and grimy, which perfectly matches the rough and scrabble environment these truck drivers work in.

Stanley Baker and Patrick McGoohan stage one of the biggest macho man contests ever committed to film, while Peggy Cummins, who delivered one of my favorite film performances of all time in "Gun Crazy," is in a much different and more boring role here as a love interest. She's basically just a trophy for the guys to win.

There's barely any plot to speak of, as evidenced by the hilariously abrupt ending that feels like the people making the movie ran out of ideas. But this is one entertaining yarn nonetheless.

Grade: A-

The Cider House Rules

Tasteful, inoffensive and bland
Tasteful, inoffensive and bland, "The Cider House Rules" was director Lasse Hallstrom's bid at prestige in 1999, and he was rewarded with Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.

Tobey Maguire plays a young man who learns about life by pining after the girl of his dreams (Charlize Theron) and through his friendship with a benevolent abortionist (Michael Caine). Maguire has exactly one facial expression as an actor (big-eyed dopiness), Theron looks lovely, and Caine brings the film to life whenever he's on screen.

The film skitters quickly away from the story's darker terrain (including abortion and incest) and prefers instead to linger on images of pretty New England scenery, glossy as a magazine cover.

Grade: C+

The Nest

Slow Burn
"The Nest" was totally preaching to this choir.

The older we get, the more my wife and I find ourselves drifting into the life philosophy of minimalism. Our focus is on cutting all the junk out of our lives, not just material junk, but psychological and emotional junk as well. This means deciding where are priorities are, what's important to us, and eliminating things and people that interfere with that.

The patriarch in "The Nest," played by Jude Law, is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Never content with what he has (which is a lot when the movie starts, and more than most people on the planet will ever have) he insists on moving his family into a giant and decaying mansion in England in order to take a job that he knows will give him his big break. But it doesn't, and the effect his greedy lust for more, more, more has on his family comprises the plot of this movie. Law is very good, but Carrie Coon, as his wife, steals the show. Her character arc is the film's most fascinating element, a woman who's allowed herself to become subservient to her husband but for whom subservience doesn't come naturally. A couple of scenes, both set at dinner tables as it happens, where she asserts her dominance over her husband, are the film's most uncomfortable and memorable.

Some symbolism involving a pet horse is broadcast with all of the subtlety of a tornado siren, and the sheer unpleasantness of being around these miserable people may turn some viewers off, but I mostly found myself engaged with this one.

Grade: A-

Ladies in Retirement

Moody Gothic Thriller
Ida Lupino is just so good at being icy and devious.

She has to be in this film, if she's to save her two daffy sisters from the poor house. Standing in her way is the lady for whom she works, a rich former actress (played wonderfully by Isobel Elsom) who doesn't want the sisters around (and who can blame her really). What's a desperate girl to do?

Well she does what you would expect in a moody, atmospheric thriller set in an isolated mansion on the English moors. The trouble is a troublesome cad is on to her and the noose begins to tighten.

"Ladies in Retirement" is good if lightweight fun. You probably won't remember it much a few days after watching, but I bet you'll have a good time while you are. Elsa Lanchester is in it after all, so what more reason do you need?

The Gothic setting won the art direction team of Lionel Banks and George Montgomery an Oscar nomination, as did the score for composers Morris Stoloff and Ernst Toch.

Grade: B+

Penny Serenade

Pretty Dreary
A rather dreary movie about a marriage tested by the wife's inability to have children and the subsequent difficulties of the adoption system.

Irene Dunne was always a sparkling and delightful actress, but her natural charm is totally stifled in this movie, and she's mostly asked to mope around and look sad. Poor Cary Grant is not the right man for the acting job here. We all know his charm came oozing right off of the screen when in roles that suited him, but he doesn't have the dramatic chops to pull this one off, despite the Best Actor Academy Award nomination he received for this film.

I did like Beulah Bondi in the role of the couple's adoption agent, though I thought it was pretty hilarious that this film makes adopting a child look about the same as going to the pet store and buying a dog.

Also with Edgar Buchanan, who gives the film probably its best scene when he shows this bungling couple how to bathe a baby. George Stevens directs erratically, some of the film playing like screwball comedy, some of it like weepy melodrama, and he isn't able to marry the two styles in a satisfying way.

Grade: B.

The Stepfather

Solid Cult Classic
A really solid horror movie that feels tailor made to be a cult classic.

Terry O'Quinn is excellent as a psychopath who murders his family for not measuring up to his ideal of the American dream and then starting all over with a new family under a different identify. The new stepdaughter is suspicious of this guy's vibe though, and the film becomes a cat and mouse thriller that we mostly can guess the outcome of but which is still a treat in the telling.

The film is smart enough to know its place as a pulpy B entertainment and not let its ambitions run away with it, but it still manages to work in some effective critique of American 1980s consumerism and toxic patriarchal masculinity. I mean, just try challenging this guy's "Father Knows Best" parental philosophy and see how far you get.

Grade: A-

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