Review in Brief: Hostiles (2017)

I don’t think we’re ever going to see a Western that’s not bleak again; it just wouldn’t be taken seriously. We’ve had an influx of de-romanticised frowny-face examples of America’s Favourite Genre over the last few years (this is my favourite for the record) but HOSTILES easily keeps apace. It has jaw-dropping scenery, nuanced characterisation and perhaps the most upsetting opening scene in the genre’s history. Aside from the misjudged BLACK MASS, I really rate actor-turned-director Scott Cooper’s work; he does atmosphere well and coaxes another intense, emotionally raw performance from Christian Bale and perhaps a career-best turn from Rosamund Pike. I’m not sure the stop-start-stop-start structure of this (already long) story – as the army escort changes party members at prearranged point in their journey – always works, but by the end of Hostiles you’ll really feel like you’ve been through the trials and tribulations of the characters. SSP

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50s Review: Rear Window (1954)

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A window into domestic bliss: Patron Inc/Paramount Pictures

Alfred Hitchcock loved screwing with his audience. From the many Macguffins scattered throughout his works to killing off protagonists halfway through and making us doubt our own perceptions, he used pretty much every twist and trick in a skilled director’s arsenal. In REAR WINDOW, he uses a simple but effective idea to rack up the tension and make your story more interesting: just limit your main character’s usefulness. It’s a pretty unusual thing to see for a male protagonist in a Classic Hollywood movie as well, appropriately our atypical is James Stewart who specialises in slightly askew masculinity.

Photographer LB Jeffries (James Stewart) is bored. It’s the longest and hottest of summers and a broken leg has confined him to a wheelchair. His only entertainment is daily visits from his straight-talking nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly), and the tedious daily routines of his neighbours witnessed outside his window. Then one day Jeffries witnesses, or thinks he witnesses something horrific in an apartment across the way…

The staging of the action in Rear Window is ingenious, with the massive set’s construction on multiple vertical levels and layers going backwards, allowing for little peaks into other lives but also using the visible space to build tension and hide information. It’s theatrical and deliberately stagey to an extent, limiting both Jeff and the audience’s field of vision and drawing attention to the fact that it’s doing just this to make the story more interesting. That’s not a criticism, by the way, just noticing a prime example of Hitch effectively using film language to enhance storytelling.

This is arguably the finest film ever about voyeurism (a Hitch specialty) but unusually it promotes its virtues. Jeff starts out watching others out of mere boredom, to escape his confinement, but he ends up using his snooping to uncover murder most foul (he thinks). We’re all drawn into Jeff’s pastime, voyeurism becoming our obsession as it becomes his. Both Lisa and Stella are quick to tell him off for sticking his nose into other people’s lives but end up being carried along by the amoral excitement of it all as the mystery unfurls. His cop friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) warns Jeff to stay within the confines of the law but in his capacity as a police detective still does odd jobs for his friends to dig up evidence, and even has a quick gander himself at one of the more attractive neighbours (“How’s your wife Doyle?”).

Like most of Hitchcock’s movies, it’s the gender politics that have aged the least well. Never mind how “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy) is filmed throughout, the way all the women characters, even Grace Kelly, Grace Kelly are patronised by the men when they dare to express an opinion or act under their own initiative really is something else.

The main way I think Rear Window has aged so well is as an example of efficient visual storytelling, as prime case of show, don’t tell, what film can and should do better than any other medium. We very quickly get to know so much about Jeff’s neighbours from the briefest of glimpses into their lives, like you’re watching about five different soap operas at once. Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) and her acting out of the perfect romantic dinner to an empty apartment; Miss Torso filling the void left by her boyfriend away at sea with a succession of besotted admirers she will never reciprocate affection with; the local eccentric couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) who sleep under the stars on their fire escape and who let their dog out to do its business using a little basket and a winch.

Rear Window is an economic little thriller; witty, tense and full of pleasing little details. It’s also one of Hitch’s very best, and probably the most eminently re-watchable of them all. SSP

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Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Get On Up (Like an undercover cop): 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks/Blumhouse

I’m still reeling from the final moments of BLACKKKLANSMAN – no other film of 2018 will pack quite as forceful a denouement. Nowhere else is Spike Lee’s mastery of blending of subjective emotion-driven storytelling with documentary filmmaking techniques more apparent, though the rest of the film is a real ride.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first African American cop in the Colorado Springs PD and volunteers to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, making introductions by phone and persuading white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to stand in for him in person. With black student protests against police brutality and the Vietnam War ramping up, Ron and Flip witness the KKK preparing something big for when Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) comes to town…

I know a lot of people can find Spike Lee pretty insufferable. He can come across as preachy and righteous and especially in the last decade where his outspoken persona has bordered on self-parody, but BlackKklansman could, and should, be the movie that makes everybody take him seriously again.

The film isn’t subtle, but it couldn’t be more relevant and timely. Lee and his co-writers get about as explicit as they could possibly get using the film to rip Trump and his supporters a new one. From Alec Baldwin’s terrifying populist rhetoric in the opening propaganda piece to a scene where two characters practically turn and look at the audience as they talk about what the American people would “never vote for” and the KKK declaring absolute hokum about eugenics as “indisputable fact”. Alternative facts indeed.

Lee isn’t even remotely interested in explaining the Klan or its membership, what drives them – it’s their horrific actions that matter. Much the same as today, racial prejudice in the 1970s came from ignorance and a place of fear, the privileged paranoid about losing that privilege, and the film respects its audience enough to not have to spell something so obvious out.

Lee picks apart American perceptions of themselves over the decades. He ridicules the absurdity of “White America” being the default and African Americans having to fit in to that, and if they’re lucky enough to have lighter skin they can (and did) “pass for white”. Many of these contradictions and ingrained injustices were covered in Ava Duvernay’s 13TH, but Lee builds them all into an engrossing and bizarre sorta-biopic, a true story with dramatic licence. Things may have been exaggerated to make the most of storytelling in this medium, but sometimes Lee just steps back, downs his tools and lets his subjects just tell their tale, to emotionally devastating effect.

Ron Stallworth is stuck between two worlds, not just because of the colour of his skin but because he joins and represents an ignorant, racist organisation in order to infiltrate an even worse one. He wants to make his own way in the world, make his mark with his own bold and risky investigation but as a black man in the time and place he is in he is only able to do so with the permission of his white superiors, white superiors who will categorically not have his back if things go south. The “other Ron Stallworth” Flip is potentially in more immediate danger being in and amongst Klan machinations and has his own fair share of self-identity doubts, but at the end of the day he is still white. Jewish, but white. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see both Washington and Driver in contention for the acting prizes at the next Oscars.

Thankfully a film with such a potentially grim subject matter is broken up by moments of levity, jokes at the expense of moronic figures of authority and, in one scene, the very special sight of Adam Driver being taught to sing James Brown convincingly.

Angry Spike Lee is a far more compelling figure than righteous Spike Lee. This is the film America needs right now. When it comes down to it Lee wants us to know that there is no winner in a race war, and he tells us this with mischief, style and attitude to spare. SSP

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Underwhelming Netflix Sci-fi Double Bill: We’ve been here before, but better

It’s been widely discussed that Netflix is fast-becoming a graveyard for genre films. It seems like whenever a major studio has doubts about a project in development (particularly horror or sci-fi), or one which is approaching release with too much competition, it gets dumped on Netflix. MUTE and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX seemingly was just the first sign of the floodgates opening. Here’s my take on just two of the latest disappointments in streaming…

TAU It’s just fine. Netflix have advanced from backing and exhibiting pretty dire sci-fi films to ones that are just OK. Maika Monroe is a good actor given the right material, almost every aspect of this story has been done before, and  been done better. Her unconventional blossoming relationship with the title character is what elevates Tau to the status of a curiosity rather than a snooze-fest. It doesn’t have the intellectual chops to match conceptually similar AI chamber pieces like EX MACHINA, and it’s not visually distinctive enough to be considered style over substance either. You know the drill: morally dubious scientist creates AI because hubris, human/AI debates whether they are so very different, AI is scared of dying because HAL’s death scene was so touching in 2001. Most of it is depressingly derivative, but at least there’s a certain joy to be had in Monroe’s Julia being excitedly questioned on the world’s bigness by a disembodied five-year-old who sounds like Gary Oldman.

EXTINCTION This starts as a another bad SKYLINE or BATTLE: LOS ANGELES-alike invasion movie, falling-down-the-stairs-style editing and spotlights-as-special effects included, and it doesn’t get a whole lot better as things progress. The middle stretch is a bit more interesting and changes genres entirely because of a pretty big twist, which might have been telegraphed better had the first act been more coherent. You didn’t get one over on me, Extinction, you just didn’t explain the rules your world operates on! I think this one’s more frustrating than Tau because there’s a gem of an interesting idea in here somewhere, and with a more fleshed-out world or characters, more invention, this could have been a standout sci-fi. Michael Peña needs to have words with his agent if he wants a chance at more interesting leading man roles (which he definitely has the charisma for). Maybe we should keep on wishing for that Luis from ANT-MAN spinoff movie instead. SSP

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Review: Cargo (2017/18)

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Not doing my bad shoulder any favours: Addictive Pictures/Causeway Films/Netflix

CARGO is not to be confused with Cargo, the not particularly good Swiss ALIEN/MATRIX mashup from 2009. But I don’t think many people saw that one, so the mixup is unlikely. Netflix’s Cargo is, to put it simply, an Australian zombie film. Put not so simply, there’s surprising depth to this particular genre reworking.

Following the outbreak of a highly infectious virus, a couple (Martin Freeman and Susie Porter) and their baby daughter attempt to travel across a zombie-ridden Australia to safety. But how far through the apocalypse can you get with a baby on your back?

The end of the world is no reason to stop passive-aggressively arguing with your partner. I mean, why would you? It’s such a human reaction to the world going to hell in a handcart. Freeman and Porter play this aspect of long-term relationships beautifully and not for a moment do you doubt their affection for each other and passive-aggressive ribbing is coming from a very real place in and amongst all this sci-fi/horror madness. You don’t see babies in zombie movies very often, unless you’re Zack Snyder and you want to do a particularly dark “turning” sequence. Unless you’re a fit and able adult, you’re a bit of a liability in any kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, so Freeman of course spends most of the movie with his infant daughter strapped to his back.

The idea of public health guidance being issued by a government in the event of a zombie epidemic is scarily plausible and a neat new element to the genre’s bag of tricks. Presumably there’s some sort of government in existence in a bunker somewhere, but our perception of this story’s world is kept intimate and hypothetical. Advisory literature with cheerful diagrams, an ominous countdown-to-losing-your-humanity Fitbit, easy-on restraints to protect your loved ones from you and a handy self-euthanasia kit are all included in the government’s zombie goodie bag.

This is a world where the survivors have become used to this epidemic, continuing to live by taking precautions and keeping moving. Unfortunately at some point, you’re going to have to put your baby down and that makes you a target. At some points we even semi-functioning relationships between zombies and humans, family members that don’t, or can’t, let a terminal illness come between them. This is a fascinating (arguably the most philosophically engaging) aspect of zombie mythology that doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention in popular culture. If you lost a loved one to the virus, could you really let go, and how can we be sure they’ve lost everything that’s “them” in the process?

It must be so hard for filmmakers to make zombies feel fresh. Here we have sap-leaking zombies and zombies with their heads buried in the ground like ostriches. They’re certainly different , visually distinctive undead, even if I don’t really understand every aspect of their being or how they exist within this world (not that I don’t think an exposition-light genre film isn’t refreshing).

Despite a lack of explanation, this future makes chilling sense. In a country like Australia, of course the cities would fall first and fast, leaving the Outback, usually seen as inhospitable, the only relatively safe place. Of course people would stockpile not only to survive, but to profit when the going got better. Of course a zombie outbreak wouldn’t affect people’s prejudices one jot.

Finally it’s great to see Indigenous Australians getting to be active and awesome on film: here they become the crack zombie-hunters usually portrayed by white alpha males in films like this. They finally get their moment to charge in and save the day. Cargo is the shot in the heart that zombie movies needed; deeply personal, intimate and from a different perspective, and it marks Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke out as filmmakers to watch. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Florida Project (2017)

I’ve no idea why it took me so long to watch THE FLORIDA PROJECT, one of the best films of 2017. So few films (STAND BY ME and the new IT spring to mind as other good examples) show kids actually behaving like kids. You also never get as naturalistic, unforced performances than if you just give young actors free reign. The behaviour of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is excusable because she’s a child, but her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) isn’t easy to root for, existing in a seemingly permanent state of arrested development and biting down hard on any threat to her fragile idyll. The kindly fleapit hotel owner Bobby (Willem Dafoe, excellent) drops a nice unexpected CHINATOWN reference in his dialogue at one point: “Don’t think I think you’re as dumb as you want me to think”. This is a really dark, grounded drama with a bubblegum palette, perfect to sideline viewers expecting something cheerier! SSP

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Review: The Happytime Murders (2018)

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Who wears it better?: Black Bear Pictures/Henson Alternative

A thought kept coming to me while watching THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: if not for the novelty of sweary Muppets, would this ever be considered good enough? I don’t know whether it’ll end up as one of the worst films of the year, but it definitely doesn’t deliver on anything beyond the most basic level.

Disgraced puppet cop-turned-PI Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) reluctantly re-teams with former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to unmask a deranged puppet-killer.

I think it was Roger Ebert who used to say (I’m paraphrasing) that when reviewing movies you compare them with similar movies. As such, let’s look at other puppet movies, and to a much lesser extent, other buddy cop movies. All the Muppet movies worked on their own terms but were elevated with the addition of those characters. MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND are good literary adaptations, THE MUPPETS a good showbiz musical, MUPPETS MOST WANTED a good crime farce. They have string foundations before they even think of adding any felt.

Even compared to other buddy comedies, the writers really aren’t Shane Black, but then again not everyone could write KISS KISS, BANG BANG. They’re not even Gough & Miller, and something like SHANGHAI NOON was a considerably lower hurdle to clear.

The Happytime Murders is mostly just, look what we can make Muppets say and do! I mean, you can’t say that Brian Henson is playing it safe with the direction he’s taking his dad’s legacy (and the creation of a new production company to make more adult-oriented fare suggests more could be on the way) but he might have annoyed many fans of the Henson back catalogue.

I’ll admit I did get a few decent laughs, particularly at the film’s darker asides, like a puppet corpse being fished out of the river then wringed out like a flannel by the cops, the payoff to another gag involving a lot of screaming. But way too much of the humour relies on easy shortcuts, on references to other movies that are too telegraphed (she’s wearing a short white dress in a police interrogation room, I wonder how she’ll manipulate the situation?).

Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks are clearly having the most fun, and get the most memorable moments out of the human characters, but we never really get to know anyone outside the lead pairing, and neither of them are all that interesting. Most of the Happytime gang and all Edwards’ police colleagues barely get namechecked, let alone anything to do.

The best thing about The Happytime Murders is the end credits, not just because it means it’s all over but because the outtakes reel features a glimpse at how the extremely talented puppeteers achieved what they did. The film might prompt the odd smile, but there really isn’t enough to recommend it. If you really fancy a raunchy puppet comedy, just watch Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES; it’s darker, wittier and more daring. SSP

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30s Review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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Only bad witches are ugly, but only good witches invade your personal space!: MGM

A couple of weekends back I attended my first ever outdoor film screening as part of Film 4’s Summer Screen at Somerset House in London. It was a dream-themed double-bill of LABYRINTH followed by what I think most of the audience were there for, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Both films looked stunning projected into the walls of a neoclassical mansion, the wind seemingly dropping picking up again in time with events on screen, and at one point a massive flock of seagulls , highlighted in the night sky by the floodlights below, made a dramatic appearance.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is swept away from Kansas to the land of Oz, where along with her friends the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) she quests to the Emerald City for an audience with the Great and Powerful Wizard. Along the way they must all overcome their weaknesses and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton).

First, Labyrinth-in-very-brief. You really need nostalgia to enjoy this. Despite some imaginative staging (the hand-faces and the Escher stairs at the end) it’s mostly just David Bowie thrusting his package forward, occasionally warbling lesser material and young, wooden Jennifer Connolly playing with less witty Muppets.

From cult curiosity to cinematic royalty. The Wizard of Oz might well be the greatest of Hollywood’s Golden Age output. With spectacular musical numbers (made all the more joyous if everyone sings along), an unimpeachable ensemble of character actors and vaudeville talent and effects that still haven’t aged that badly 80 years on by virtue of being creative (non more so than a stocking around chicken wire standing in for the tornado). The film of course also features one of the all-time great visual gimmicks employed as Dorothy arrives in the Merry Old Land of Oz, the world transforming from agricultural sepia to fantastical Technicolor on stepping through a door. This really is one that has stood the test of time.

Judy Garland is great in almost every way Jennifer Connelly wasn’t in Labyrinth. It’s a joyous performance with such easy chemistry with her co-stars and such natural charisma. Before the Wicked Witch of the West was over-explained and retconned to be simply misunderstood by WICKED and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, she was a crafty, cruel force of evil nature in Margaret Hamilton’s hands.

The preeminent exponent of “the power was inside you all along” / “it’s all about the journey” storytelling. Such clichés prompt groans when they’re used today, but in their classic form, as the pure and powerful meaning behind Dorothy’s journey, they really land. It also somehow manages to get away with the “it was all a dream” twist in a way so few stories have, because it’s so thematically essential to this tale.

I think it’s underestimated how influential Oz was on fantasy films in general. I can’t not think of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS aesthetic when we get to the scenes in the Wicked Witch’s castle at the end. On arriving in Oz, the story doesn’t stop dead to give us a load of expository information, but we almost immediately understand how this strange and colourful world works, and we take in the land’s wonders with new eyes just as Dorothy does.

It hasn’t all aged perfectly of course, with the Cowardly Lion’s limp-wristed gesture accompanying his self-description as a “dandy lion” now prompting a wince (though his archaic obvious sexual coding has apparently since been reclaimed by the LGBT community), realising how seriously Margaret Hamilton injured herself in a fire effect or that Toto was paid much more than the munchkins all prompt no small amount of discomfort. Staggeringly, the producers wanted to cut the superlative “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when they should have probably cut the decidedly naffer “King of the Forest”.

The Wizard of Oz is near-perfect dream-musical extravaganza and has barely aged a day in 81 years. What more is there to say? There’s no place like old Hollywood? SSP

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Review in Brief: Berlin Syndrome (2017)

BERLIN SYNDROME takes simple exploitation film premise, “nice boy you met on holiday turns out to be a kidnapping psychopath” and goes far deeper into the psychological makeup of these characters who could very easily just be archetypes. It portrays an exaggerated, but completely and chillingly believable abusive relationship, with levels of abuse both simple and far less easy to define. It’s a film of fascinating character contradictions. Andi (Max Riemelt) morally judges people but physically and emotionally imprisons women, Clare’s (Teresa Palmer) bids for freedom become much less determined as long as her captor keeps her in relative comfort. Her only question for him is “How did you choose me?” which says a lot about her perspective on life. Director Cate Shortland (a really good choice for the long-anticipated BLACK WIDOW movie) contrasts upsetting material and emotional turmoil with steady, meticulous and beautiful shot construction, moments of stillness allowing you to take a breather from Clare’s waking nightmare and hope things get better. SSP

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Review: The Meg (2018)

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There’s always a bigger fish…: Apelles Entertainment/Di Bonaventura Pictures

Keep an ear out for this exchange in pubs over the next few months: ” Did you see that Jason Statham Giant Shark Movie? Yeah, it was alright I guess”. That’s how THE MEG is going to be remembered because let’s be honest, it’s not a catchy title, nor is it a movie that lingers. It’s been a long time coming (adaptation attempts have been floundering for about 20 years) and for what it is the finished product is sporadically fun.

Rescue diver extraordinaire Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is reluctantly called in to retrieve a research team who have become trapped exploring the Marianas Trench, releasing a prehistoric monstrosity in the process. Reaching the surface is only half the battle, and before long a 20 metre set of jaws is heading towards the heavily populated Chinese coastline, fast.

Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor completely straight-faced, God bless him. He finally gets to play a role that requires extensive swimming and him putting his (actual Olympic-level) diving skills to good use. Shame he doesn’t get to use his martial arts experience on the shark. I think he’s called Jonas because apparently naming him Jonah in a film like this would have been too on-the-nose (though this does come from the book). He does what he does well, but he and everyone else in the cast is acted off the screen by the young Sophia Cai.

While the first half is pretty unremarkable, the second is fun because it gets really silly. Once we get out of the undersea lab and the action heads towards a (very) populated Chinese coastal resort you’ll have to fight back a smile at the trashy entertainment on offer. I’m down for any movie with Jason Statham being dragged behind a boat as a human lure for a giant shark.

The plot, such as it is, isn’t up to much. I’ve no idea what Rainn Wilson’s sleazy billionaire’s business is, or what the science team are actually aiming to do with their aquatic sci-fi lab. At least the boffins in DEEP BLUE SEA were trying to cure Alzheimer’s disease! I’m not going to say an uninvolving story and paper-thin character is fatal to a film like this, but it does help to place it firmly in the junk food film category.

A late-stage emotional outpouring between father (Winston Chao) and daughter (Li Bingbing) lacks impact because their relationship doesn’t seem all that dysfunctional. In fact, they’re open and supportive of each other throughout the film and neither seem to have real flaws. If I were a cynical viewer I’d say it’s because they’re the two most prominent Chinese characters and you don’t want to annoy your co-financiers. It’s possibly the most annoying thing about large co-productions like this, that Chinese stars and the country they represent always have to be spotless heroes.

I completely agree with people who have suggested that The Meg isn’t quite bad enough. That’s not to say it should be bad on a technical level, in terms of film language, but it could have really leaned into its silliness more frequently. The effects and the action are fine, but I found myself perplexed by a relative lack of one-liners. Though I had a lot of fun with portions of the movie, I’m not sure there’s a lot I’m going to remember for the foreseeable. Say what you like about other bad shark movies, at least JAWS 2 offs the shark in a really entertaining way and Deep Blue Sea has the shark turn on an oven containing LL Cool J. Jason Statham being dragged behind a boat just can’t compete. SSP

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