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June 3/10

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MOVIES
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Here's our NEW SYSTEM for Dating Pages: The date above will be the date of the most recent postings. As usual, though, the newest reviews will appear towards the top of the page, the older ones moving further down. When the page is archived, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here:  Get Him to the Greek (Movie); The Trotsky (Movie); In Spite of Myself (Memoir); Revelation (Mystery); Please Give (Movie); Exit through the Gift Shop  (Movie);

Get Him to the Greek (Movie) written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segal; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill; with Rose Byrne, Elisabeth Moss, Colm Meaney, Zoe Salmon, Lino Facidi, Lars Ulrich, Mario Lpez, Carla Gallo, Paul Krugman, Helen Mirren (I think) and a mob of other minor celebrities.

If you’ve heard anything about this movie, you might not think it would be of any interest to us here at Dilettante’s Diary. But we have our reasons. Russell Brand made a memorable impression on us in his supporting role as Aldous Snow, an egotistical British rock star, in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, not in itself a bad comedy (for review see DD, date of page). So we thought it might be worth seeing what he could do with the same character in a starring role – one based to some extent, we gather, on his own persona.

At the opening of the movie, the notorious bad boy’s enjoying a spell of sobriety and clean living (well, comparatively speaking). Explaining why he has come to Africa to record a rock video with a social justice message, Snow says he was watching one of the endless wars on telly: "And I thought, to myself, this isn’t right. So I put in a couple of calls and found that it wasn’t." His new video casts him as an African Jesus from outer space but he modestly allows that it’s up to the viewers to decide for themselves whether or not they see him as another Jesus (while making it pretty clear what he hopes they’ll decide).

This sly wit looked promising. But then Snow spectacularly falls off the wagon. From that point on, he’s a raving drunk and drug addict of no interest whatsoever. His antics becomes as tiresome as his South London dialect, with its "th’s" pronounced as "f’s", his glottal double "t’s" and his disinclination to grace his speech with any other consonants. Long before the movie ends, Mr. Brand has worn out his welcome on the screen, as far as we’re concerned.

As for his co-star, Jonah Hill’s involvement in a movie has never been a drawing point for us. There’s nothing particularly bad about him here, except that he has to play the unbelievably stupid Aaron Green, a doofus who gets the brilliant idea of showcasing Snow in concert that will revive the fortunes of a production company Green works for. Green’s boss sends him to England to personally escort the errant Snow to America. As far as I could tell, it’s never explained why this mission must be accomplished within the next 24 hours, but the deadline provides the necessary plot momentum.

Not surprisingly, the gormless American and the debauched Brit fall into a series of misadventures mostly having to do with sex, drugs and booze, during which escapades the Hill character tends often to get humiliated anally – in the literal sense, not the Freudian one. Most of the young teens in attendance at a matinee took great pleasure in the proliferation of the f-word. (Surely the tinkling laughter of those young girls in response to that word marks the end of its potency in our culture.) And yet scenes involving vomit had the young ladies cringing like prissy Victorian maidens.

I’d have been only too glad to enjoy the vulgarity and/or the puking, if there had been anything inventive or clever about what was going down. The level of comic ingenuity in this movie, however, makes the shenanigans in Hangover (see review, DD date) look as brilliant as the work of Eugene Ionesco. A cameo by Helen Mirren (at least, I think it’s her, uncredited) as Snow’s bitchy mom provides a touch of class but it’s far too small a part to save the movie. And there’s no point whatsoever to the appearance of economist Paul Krugman, unless it’s to show that even a Nobel prize winner can make a bad call when it comes to getting a chance to be in a movie.

When the swear words and references to genetalia dried up  – the way noxious weeds eventually choke each other out – longeurs of expectant silence descended on the theatre. Did those teens get what they were waiting for in the end? Don’t ask me. When the movie had about 20 minutes to go, my patience ran out. I did too.

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

The Trotsky (Movie) written and directed by Josh Tierney; starring Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, Colm Feore, Saul Rubinek, Michael Murphy, David Julian Hirsch, Domini Blythe, Genevive Bujold, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Jesse Camacho, Justin Bradley, Ben Mulroney, Liane Balaban

Early in this movie, some cheerleaders are agitating for a union in a factory. Something about the young women looks odd: bulky sweaters and boxy skirts. I begin to wonder if this movie is supposed to be set in the 1960s or 70s. But no, the cars in the background appear to be contemporary.

Throughout the rest of the movie, the 1970s kept coming back to mind for other reasons. Ah, for those long-lost days when we were discovering Canadian film! It was all about celebrating our own culture (as opposed to Hollywood’s). Would-be directors rounded up eager performers, occasionally even bagging a big name who happened to have a few days available. The enthusiasm was endless. But not the funding. Or the expertise. Often, there wasn’t enough of either to make things looks professional and polished. Sets looked makeshift. The acting ranged wildly from complete inexperience to wily know-how.

And often the ideas were strangely off-beat. I remember (because friends were involved) one real grabber about a tycoon determined to get his name on a university building. In The Trotsky, the lame-ass concept is the saga of a Montreal teenager who thinks he’s the re-incarnation of Leon Trotsky. That means trying to pattern his life on Trotsky’s in every detail, including falling in love with an older woman named Alexandra. When the kid labels his dad a fascist and tries to start a union at his dad’s clothing factory, Dad declines to pay the kid’s private school tuition any more. So young "Trotsky" is forced to switch to public school. Where, of course, his activism starts making like fireworks on Victoria Day.

In keeping with the 1970s style, the acting veers all over the lot. Surprisingly, some of the best bits come from the teenage students; maybe kids these days are so accustomed to being surrounded with cameras – cell phones, ipods, etc – that doing their thing for the lens comes quite naturally to them. Other cast members over-act as if they’re trying to prove that they belong on the Stratford Festival stage. Some of the sets look improvisational: a supposed meeting of Montreal’s public school board takes place in what looks like a spare room in a parish hall. Photography and editing don’t measure up to any high standard. Some reaction shots look like they’re shot on a different day than the ones they’re reacting to. Sometimes subsequent shots aren’t edited in such a way that they match each other. Crowd scenes look staged, not spontaneous.

Flaws like this can be taken as endearing quirks if the central idea of the movie wins you over. But who could possibly care about the delusions of this teenage jerk? It might work if the actor playing the part had some charm going for him. Jay Baruchel doesn’t. His demented sincerity never stirs anything like a sympathetic response. And the situations he sets up are ludicrous: a "social justice" dance where 300 plus kids show up dressed in rental costumes as guerilla fighters, Maoist soldiers and knights in shining armour. It all looks like something that excited some lefty film-makers but nobody stopped to ask how it might play to an audience.

Much as the nostalgic reminder of that golden age of Canadian cinema was interesting, there comes a time, with a movie like this, when you have to decide whether you want to see how much worse it can get or whether you want to get on with the rest of your life. I made the latter choice when the movie still had about 45 minutes to go (of a total of nearly two hours). The time spent on it wasn’t a complete waste, though. My ears are still ringing with the wonderful sound of the hearty male chorus singing Russian military songs in the background.

Rating: E minus (where E stands for the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

In Spite of Myself (Memoir) by Christopher Plummer, 2008

You can be pretty sure that Christopher Plummer’s gonna have some good stories to tell at this stage of his career. After all, we’re talking about the man who is arguably Canada’s most successful classical actor – certainly in terms of international recognition. The question is: how’s he going to tell his tales? What voice, what narrative style is he going to take? For me, that’s one of the key questions about any a memoir.

At first, there doesn’t seem to be any particular narrative style to this one. Mr. Plummer jumps in and starts talking, without much context or explanation. Nothing about why he’s writing the book or what he intends to say. Not even much indication of why he chose the acting profession. It’s presented more or less as something that just happened. (Only in the final pages of the book do we learn that John Barrymore was one of the inspiring motivators.) Another huge lacuna is lack of any explanation about the absence of his father from his life. We know that his mother was a single parent but there’s no accounting for his father or why he wasn’t around. As a young teen, Mr. Plummer meets his father for the first time and then the man disappears from the memoir.

Instead of any explanatory setting of the stage, Mr. Plummer hits us right off the top with some stuff about a dog who featured largely in his toddler years. Then he jumps to other impressions of early childhood. It’s as if we’ve known him for ages and he's simply taking the opportunity to savour some favourite memories one evening as we’re sitting by the fire. But that’s a style in itself, isn’t it: the fireside ramble? And, once it gets going, it works well. Not that there’s any great literary finesse on display, for the most part. Clichs crop up pretty frequently (...hear a pin drop...too many cooks....separate the men from the boys...as luck would have it...to the manner born) but that’s probably permissible in this kind of informal monologue.

The emphasis isn’t so much on fine writing as on events – outrageous ones, for the most part. If you like to think of our classical actors as refined beings who breathe the rarefied air of the upper stratospheres of art, this may not be the book for you. Much of it consists of pranks and tomfoolery fuelled by copious amounts of booze. Gossip, anecdote, farce and comedy galore, with cameos by a bevy of celebrities from Princess Margaret to Marilyn Monroe. One motif that keeps cropping up features some physician miraculously summoned out of thin air to make things right by means of magical healing skills.

Even in the more mature, established part of this actor’s career, the emphasis is on fiascos and disasters. Producers run out of money; directors get fired; cast members get cold feet and withdraw. Of course, it must be admitted that the projects that went smoothly wouldn't make for such entertaining telling as these calamities. The one that amazed me most was the time Lawrence Olivier hired Mr. Plummer to play Coriolanus for Britain’s National Theatre. Rehearsals were well underway before Mr. Plummer realized that the two enigmatic German directors at the helm intended to do Bertold Brecht’s version, not William Shakespeare’s.

For many people of course, it’s Mr. Plummer’s connection with the movie of The Sound of Music that matters most. Referring to the project sardonically as "S + M", he acknowledges that his initial behaviour on set was insufferably high-handed. Trouble was, he felt the project was beneath him, but he wanted it for the money and the fame. Gradually, though, he grew very fond of the eccentric inhabitants of the hotel where he stayed in Austria for the location filming. The enormous respect that he developed for co-star Julie Andrews also helped to see him through. Forced to watch the movie at a party in recent years, Mr. Plummer expresses some astonishment on discovering how well made and entertaining it is.

While self-analysis may not be the book’s primary thrust, we do glean quite a few insights into the author’s character. A friend of mine, an actor, who knew Mr. Plummer from his early days in Ottawa theatre, used to say that young Plummer struck everybody as a cocky lad, very full of himself. In advanced maturity, Mr. Plummer does nothing to dispell that image. He admits that Tyrone Guthrie barred him from the festival in Stratford, Ontario, at its inception because of his reputation as a womanizer and drinker. Time and again, he mentions situations in which he behaved over-bearingly and arrogantly. He even manages some self-deprecating humour on that score. Talking about his enormous success in a show  later in  life, he says: "If I wasn’t so conceited already, it might have gone to my head."

To his credit, though, he never seems to preen, or congratulate himself on his great talent. In fact, he gives the impression that most of his success has come by way of good luck – in spite of himself, indeed! He admits his acting limitations, in some instances, and acknowledges that one of his takes on Macbeth wasn’t very good. He’s also capable of a certain magnanimity towards other actors as when, for example, he’ll mention that someone else did better in a role than he did. One of the rare instances where he comments pejoratively on another actor’s performance would be the reference, more in sadness than in spite, to John Gielgud’s inadequate Othello. The only place where you get a faint whiff of dislike for another actor would be the depiction of Alec Guinness as chilly and aloof.

As for further traits of the author, the book reals some attractive ones and some less attractive ones. It comes as a pleasant surprise to me to learn that he’s an accomplished pianist. But then there’s his love for bull fights. He makes no attempt to justify his passion for that barbaric pastime. In the account of his first two marriages, you wonder whether he’s being too easy on himself when he glides through them with the implication that he simply wasn’t good husband material at that stage of his life. Or fathering material. His parenting of his daughter Amanda was largely of the absent kind. His disdain for unions and Labour governments comes through and he admits to pulling rank, at least once, on the basis of the fact that his name appeared above the title on the marquee for a Broadway play. You have to wonder about his self knowledge when he comments that he doesn’t consider himself a rich man, just "comfortable." His elaborate real estate dealings and his jetting all over the place make him look very rich indeed compared to most of us.

But a moment of startling self-knowledge comes in a reflection on Boris Karloff, a colleague in a Broadway production. Finding him to be one of the world’s truly good humans, Mr. Plummer says: "I realized, with a sharp little pang of sadness and envy, I could never be one of them."

Towards the end, the book inevitably runs the risk of turning into a parade of famous names. But I guess that’s inevitable, given that somebody in Mr. Plummer’s situation needs must acknowledge the many people who’ve made a significant contribution to his career. This biographical foot-noting, though, never goes on for more than a page or two. And it must be noted that, when Mr. Plummer gets on a roll regarding certain subjects, a certain literary finesse does emerge. This occurs at such times as when, for instance, he’s penning a paean of praise to someplace like New York or the swinging London of the 1960s.

Also when he’s devoting a passage to some special person – Frances Hyland, among one of many instances. One of my favourites in this vein, would be his tribute to Dame Edith Evans, who played mad Queen Margaret in the production that starred Mr. Plummer as Richard the Third. Here, the pushy, conceited actor recedes into the background as he describes with tenderness – almost filial affection – how the grand old dame invited him back to her small house for a dinner deux after the final performance. Dame Edith personally cooked him a fry-up, after which they settled down by the fire for a lengthy session of her reminiscences. Eventually, she pushed the whisky bottle towards him and said it was his turn to hold forth. When he looked up after a while, she was fast asleep in her chair.

Disclosure: When I was in the seminary, I played Pope Leo X in a production of John Osborne’s Luther. A fellow seminarian who had been an usher at the Stratford Festival managed to sweet-talk somebody in Stratford’s wardrobe department into loaning us some costumes for free. The leather jerkin I wore for the scene in the pope’s hunting lodge had the name Christopher Plummer on the label sewn into it and the collar was still stained with the actor’s sweat. My scientific advisors tell me it’s quite likely some of his DNA rubbed off on me. Does that jeopardize my critical impartiality in reviewing his memoir? You decide.

 

Revelation (Mystery) by C. J. Sansom, 2008

This installment in the adventures of lawyer Matthew Shardlake takes place a few years later than the one in Dissolution. (For our review of that one, see Dilettante’s Diary, December 4/08.) It’s 1543 now. King Henry VIII, having gone through five wives, has his eye on the widow Catherine Parr. In the precarious political climate that has conservatives, reformers and radicals at odds with each other, lawyer Matthew Shardlake gets involved in trying to find the perpetrator of several murders. Given that the killings seem to follow a pattern of vengeance outlined in the bible’s Book of Revelation, the murderer would appear to be some crazed religious radical.

As a mystery, Revelation works well, serving up some nice surprises. In a general way, I like the depiction of the historical era. Circumstances were amazingly complicated. It took some fancy footwork to keep on the right side of a king whose notions of rectitude were constantly shifting. Among several subplots, the one that interested me most concerns a boy, the son of reformist parents, who has been driven to madness by an overwhelming sense of his sinfulness. Shardlake, with the help of his physician friend, Guy Malton, tries to ease the boy’s torment.

All of which is to say that the book gave me something to read while forced to lie around for a couple of days, as a result of having buggered my back. But I kept wishing I were spending all that time on something I was enjoying more. And yet, these Shardlake novels by Mr. Sansom, have pleased many people. I too like good mysteries. So why didn’t this one satisfy me?

There could be many reasons. But I think the major issue with a book like this has to do with the reader’s trust in the writer. If enough problems in the writing crop up as you’re reading, it comes to the point where you begin to feel that you’re not in very reliable company. Then more and more flaws start surfacing. After a while, you’re not believing the writer any more. Nothing seems convincing. It all seems contrived and effortful.

One of the first alarm signals for me was the statement that Shardlake took hold of a woman’s arm and he found it "light as a bird’s." I’m thinking: do birds have arms??? But never mind, we move on. Then I start noticing anachronisms in terms of language and attitudes. Shardlake’s assistant, Barak, uses the "F" word a lot. My understanding of the etymology of that hallowed expression is that it doesn’t date back much further than the 18th century. Shardlake talks about somebody building a "fantasy" about married life. I strongly suspect that nobody used the term "fantasy" that way before the prevalence of psychotherapy in human affairs. In another place, Shardlake resorts to that twenty-first century clich, "at the end of the day". When somebody with medical problems is advised to get a "second opinion," it sounds like we’re dealing with today’s health care scene. A woman informs her husband that he and she need "time apart"; later Shardlake opines that the woman may want her marriage to be a relationship "of equals." Sounds like some of those Tudor types have been reading Betty Friedan.

On the other hand, when it comes to details intended to confirm the historical setting, it seems like Mr. Sansom is trying too hard. We get frequent references to the "coif" that bound a woman’s hair, according to the custom of the times. The author mentions it so often that you begin to think he’s stuck for any other sartorial niceties. Same with the many references to taking a "wherry" across the Thames. After a while, you wanna say: ok, I get it, you don’t have to keep telling me that that’s what it’s called. Another thing that grates is the repeated mention of the wearing of false teeth, apparently a new fad at the time. But maybe that’s acceptable, given that there turns out to be a plot tie-in.

Shall we talk characterization and dialogue? Other authors have shown that conversation in historical settings doesn’t have to sound stilted. The only characters whose speech comes off the page here are those who use modern swear words. You can tell who the bad people are because they always call Shardlake, on account of the effects of his scoliosis, "crookback". One of these creeps, Thomas Seymour, comes across as so evil that he laughs or smirks whenever anybody’s discomfited.

At the other extreme, Shardlake himself is too honourable and wise. Discovering that an enemy lawyer is ill, Shardlake pulls a Good Samaritan and pays for his care. Shardlake always knows just the right thing to say to somebody-- a troubled boy, for instance, or a sensitive woman. His tact and his refinement make him more like a twenty-first-century therapist than a sixteenth century lawyer. Not to mention that he always knows when somebody’s lying or holding back information. Or his uncanny gift for sensing when he’s being followed. Granted, I’m willing to allow some of these attributes to all detectives, whatever their historical eras, but such virtues are easier to take in a detective who’s a bit of a bastard.

 

Please Give (Movie) written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; starring Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Lois Smith

The setup here can be a bit confusing if you’re not prepared, so here’s the situation (you’re welcome):  Kate and Alex are the parents of Abby, a disaffected teen. They own a store in Manhattan where they sell "vintage" furniture from the mid-twentieth century that they’ve bought from the estates of the recently deceased.The apartment next to theirs is occupied by an elderly woman. It’s assumed that when she dies, Alex and Kate will take ownership of her apartment, by way of expanding their own. Meanwhile the old lady's granddaughters often visit her. One of them, Rebecca, works as a technician doing mammograms; the other, Mary, gives facials in a spa.

Presumably, this is meant to be a low-key, laid-back movie about the idiosyncratic ways people handle this business that we call life. Thanks to excellent acting throughout, we get recognizable scenes of quotidian ordinariness: shopping, eating out, a birthday party, a dreary little funeral. But there’s no dramatic conflict, except for the somewhat trumped-up contrast between the nice people and the not-so-nice ones. The point would apparently be that some people negotiate life in a noble and virtuous way but others don’t. Not by any means a negligible theme. The trouble here is that the good and the bad are too starkly delineated.

Take the role of Kate, played by Catherine Keener. So far, I’ve always found that Ms. Keener brings an originality and authenticity to the roles she plays. Since they’re usually supporting roles, I’ve been longing to see whether she can sustain a central role. Well, she does about as well as anybody could in the role of this unbelievably good woman. So good that she worries about charging too much for the re-sale of the furniture in their store. When she finds that a pot is worth much more than she paid for it, she personally returns it to the owner. She buys some of a deceased woman’s furniture just because she feels badly for the bereaved son whose wife keeps saying that her mother-in-law’s stuff isn’t worth anything. An encounter with some developmentally delayed young people brings Kate to copious tears. In one case, her irrepressible benevolence towards street people leads to an awful gaffe on her part. Which makes you wonder whether we’re dealing with kindness or stupidity.

At the other extreme, there’s the crone next door (Ann Morgan Guilbert) whose egregious spitefulness surpasses all bounds. At her birthday party, she objects to the smell of the cooking and complains that the cake’s too dry. She finds fault with any gift she’s given. To her, the building’s superintendent is a "greaseball" just because he’s Puerto Rican. She feels no compunction about pointing out the physical shortcomings of her granddaughter’s boyfriend – to his face.

Maybe it’s no surprise then, that her other granddaughter (Amanda Peet) has inherited a goodly portion of bile. This young charmer can’t resist voicing hopes for the old lady’s prompt demise. Until then, Granny gets nothing but scorn from this descendant.

The other granddaughter, though, falls decidedly on the nice side of the ledger. An ingenuous, unaffected young woman (Rebecca Hall), she strikes up a relationship with a similarly sincere guy (Thomas Ian Nicholas). The guy happens to have a granny (Lois Smith) who also belongs in the camp of the good people.

Not so in the case of Alex and Kate’s daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). This teen’s rudeness and obnoxious sullenness shouldn’t be tolerated even on screen. As for her dad (Oliver Platt), he may be the only person who straddles the line somewhere in the believably human mode between absolute good and absolute bad.

This being intended as a heartfelt  charmer of a movie, you can guess that most of the baddies make some small steps, at least, towards goodness before we’re done with them. For the most part, though, there’s no clear motivation for their change of attitude, other than the fact that the movie wants to send us away feeling good. So it doesn’t ultimately work for me. If a writer/director feels that a depiction of human behaviour in such simplistic terms is a true reflection of life, I can’t be very interested in that writer/director’s ideas.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Documentary) by Banksy; featuring Thierry Guetta; narration by Rhys Ifans

I headed out to this one, knowing only that it had something to do with art and commercialism. The title, after all, encouraged that supposition. What the movie turned out to be though, I’m still not sure.

But it starts as a fairly conventional, if rather hectic documentary. Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA, becomes obsessed with his video camera. So obsessed that he videos everything, including his own peeing. Then he hits on one subject that totally grabs him: LA’s fly-by-night graffiti artists, especially Shephard Fairey and the one who calls himself "Space Invader".

Mr. Guetta’s work on a documentary about them leads him to Banksy, the elusive but celebrated British practitioner of the art. Surprisingly, the mysterious Banksy agrees to the making of a documentary about himself – as long as his face is not shown and his voice is distorted. The exposure to Banksy’s high-profile success fires Thierry’s own ambitions. As a street artist under the name of "Mr. Brainwash", he gets some fantastical and spectacular results.

This movie was hard for me to watch on several counts. First, and most obviously, the hand-held camera: truly, a case of the technique run riot, inducing great queasiness in this viewer. Then there was the distortion of Banksy’s voice, an ominous growl emanating from the shadowy hood that passed for his face. Much like watching a horror movie, not exactly my favourite genre. Plus, the irritating voice-over narration (by Rhys Ifans) with portentously corny wording like: "Circumstances conspired..." and "But now there was a new development..." and "Disaster struck!"

But most of all, there was the subject itself. A celebration of graffiti does not warm the heart of a person who believes that the proper response to the art form is the passing of a law whereby any person under the age of thirty who is found in possession of a can of spray paint after dark should lose a hand.

The movie, however, does have an interesting point to make when Banksy chooses Disneyland as the venue to stage a piece of street art making a statement about Guantanamo Bay. Banksy’s introduction of a live elephant, painted red, with white flowers, into his show in LA certainly has a striking metaphorical impact. And Thierry Guetta has a certain dorky naivete that evokes some friendly response in a viewer.

The conclusion of the movie – which, of course, we won’t reveal here – would make it a stinging indictment of the folly of the art world. If the movie were true. But is it a complete hoax? Does Mr. Thierry Guetta exist or are we dealing here with a subtle actor? (Try searching the Internet, if you like, but you won’t get much clarification.) This could be just another Banksy prank. If so, what's the point? He's apparently trying to tell us that the art world is totally crazy. Is the public that gullible, that susceptible to fads and frauds? I don’t think so.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

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