Monthly Archives: August 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

Believe it or not, there actually is a sequel out there about William Shakespeare’s most famous play concerning family dysfunction. Author David Bergantino surely doesn’t feel that he can improve upon the Bard’s classic Hamlet, but Bergantino is a writer who doesn’t cower from a challenge, like where to go next when all the main characters are dead. That’s why Bergantino took it upon himself to write Hamlet II: Ophelia’s Revenge (no joke). Apparently modern students at Globe University are playing out a family squabble very similar to anyone that has taken a high school literature class. The synopsis over at Amazon.com says it better than I could ever hope:

“When he unexpectedly inherits a creepy old castle in Denmark, Cameron tries to put his worries behind him, inviting his girlfriend and college buddies along on an overseas trip to check out the gloomy fortress. The plan is to get some serious partying done. Too bad nobody counted on the ghost of a drowned girl rising from her watery grave with vengeance on her mind! Now the only question is: to die or not to die?”

In the wake of Hamlet 2, a popular comedy at the Sundance Film Festival, I pity Bergantino. The man is going to be the Leif Ericson of pointless Shakespeare sequels: forgotten by history at the original pioneer. The film Hamlet 2 follows the miserable life of Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). He teaches drama at a Tucson, Arizona public school and barely gets paid. His wife (Catherine Keener) is anxious to get pregnant and convinced Dana is shooting blanks. The couple is so poor that they have to rent out their home to a boarder (David Arquette). His drama class has two very WASP-y pupils (Phoebe Strole and Skyler Astin), but the rest are disinterested Hispanic students bused in from another school district. The school’s theater critic chides Dana’s laughable productions of Hollywood movies, like Mississippi Burning and Erin Brocovich. Then comes the news that drama has been slashed from the school budget. The pint-sized theater critic tells Dana to try something original to save the drama department. The answer? Hamlet 2. Thanks to a time machine, and Hamlet’s new best buddy Jesus Christ, the pair can go back and save everyone who previously perished.

Hamlet 2 is Coogan’s show and the British comic makes his character endearing sad-sack. His character is pathetic and subject to all sorts of personal humiliations, and yet Dana is so earnest that it makes it hard not to empathize with his exploits. Coogan has a wild leer to him that gives the character a manic edge of desperation. He’s a gifted comic but he’s used to playing smug, droll characters, and Dana Marschz is the exact opposite of that mold. Coogan’s many breakdowns and bouncy spirit give the material an extra lift. He works hard for every laugh. It’s a shame, though, that he sort of disappears into the background during the staging of his infamous play.

So what is the comedic point of view with Hamlet 2? Are we to laugh at Dana and find him a buffoon? Well if that’s the case, then why serve up a musical finale that’s actually worthwhile and completely hilarious? The production values are pretty extravagant given the money limitations on the characters. Not only that, it’s so bonkers that I wanted to just watch Hamlet 2 on stage and not cut back to life outside. I wanted to luxuriate in the inspired craziness of a musical that involves time travel, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, the song “Raped in the Face,” the devil, the Gay Men’s Chorus, lots of father issues, and Jesus moonwalking over water. That’s way more interesting than the ho-hum characters interacting backstage. In truth, the play’s the thing and it’s way too short for my liking. The performance serves as the film’s payoff, so I wanted to get every crazy kernel of shameless joy. The “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” song is irresistible and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for days. It’s so bouncy and fun and melodic. I’ll be walking along and then I’ll start humming the damn thing. I doubt that I will come across a catchier original song in movie this year. Hopefully those bigwigs in the Academy will realize the tune’s musical merits and give it a nomination it rightfully deserves.

Then is Hamlet 2 a parody of all those treacly teacher inspiration movies, the kind that seem to always be populated by tough minority kids who just need someone to take the time and break through to them? Well Dana constantly refers to Hollywood movies like they’re documentaries, and even a whole class lecture concerns Dangerous Minds. When he accidentally injures a student, Dana jumps at his students being alert and offers in summation, “Yes it was stupid but it was theater.” The movie takes some shots against the likes of Dead Poet’s Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus, but ultimately Hamlet 2 becomes yet another inspirational teacher movie. Dana is able to rally his students to the cause of theater, prejudices are broken down, and certain students take charge of their young lives. It’s all so predictable, and predictability blunts edginess and can destroy comedy. The only true genre tweak seems to come when standoffish Octavio’s background comes to light. He’s not the underprivileged wannabe gangster but a bright kid whose been admitted to an Ivy League school early. And his parents don’t object to the play because of “ethnic narrow-mindness” but because they think it’s poorly written.

Like Dana’s students, the film never seems to match its potential. The concept is great and so is having a main character who is inspired by theater but profoundly inept at teaching it. Dana lacks talent but can it be made up for with such big-hearted enthusiasm? There is plenty of ripe material there, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t seem to fully realize the comedic possibilities. Watching Dana fight administration officials in the name of the arts is worthwhile conflict but it’s rarely funny. Keener seems wasted as Dana’s passive-aggressive wife. An ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler) is a great political target, especially as she fights in the name of bad art, but she appears too late in the film to be really capitalized. The climactic staging of Dana’s masterwork is another example of not fully thinking out the comic potential of a situation.

Here’s a perfect example: Elisabeth Shue appears in the film as herself, actress Elisabeth Shue. She’s quit the acting business and taken residence as a nurse in Tucson. What exactly is the joke here? Is it that Hollywood has the habit of spitting out aging actresses? Dana’s students have no idea who Shue is. Is it self-parody? If it was self-parody then the filmmakers needed to give Shue more of a personality. She’s appears infrequently and beams a nice smile but that seems like the only demand, though I must admit always in her nurse outfit, a nice visual gag. If Hamlet 2 had spent more time in revision it would utilize the comic possibilities of integrating a real-life actress playing herself in such a remote city.

Ultimately, I don’t know what to make out of Hamlet 2. It’s a marginally funny and entertaining venture that celebrates the power of the arts, which is a noble cause. Coogan straps the production on his back and carries it as far as he can go. There are some decent laughs and the closing 15 minutes is a giddy blast. However, the movie often feels flat and simply odd, missing potential punchlines and settling for second-rate comedic situations. The crafty premise afforded better material then what eventually comes across onscreen. The whole thing also feels like a mild retread of Waiting for Guffman. But take heart, because Bergantino is not about to lose the spotlight just yet. He also has written A Midsummer Night’s Scream: Hamlet II (I have no idea where the two stories connect but that’s the genius of it). It’s only a penny at Amazon.com. Get it while you can. Or don’t. Preferably, don’t.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Pineapple Express (2008)

There’s something to be said about a comedy that requires an audience to puff illegal substances in order to fully be entertained. Somewhere along the line the Judd Apatow comedy unit went down a wayward track with the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, an amiable goof of a comedy at best. The premise is solid, two stoners (Seth Rogen and James Franco) witnessing a murder and on the run. Rogen and Franco have a great rapport with one another that translates to plenty of good vibes and humor (Danny McBride steals the show as a seemingly indestructible low-rent drug dealer). But the movie veers off into action territory with bloody violence that really harshes your mellow, man. Pineapple Express never really settles on a consistent tone, so when the movie fully transforms into a strained guns-a-blazin’ action caper, the comedy has totally vanished. The realistic violence is intended to get the laughs. When people get shot, it’s ugly, and when ear lobes get blown off it’s just plain gross. There’s no room for humor in the third act and the action is lazy and uninspired. If Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (who scripted the much funnier Superbad) were aiming to create an action parody, then they didn’t push nearly hard enough. After the movie ended, I thought back to last year’s superior action parody, Hot Fuzz, which had a consistent tone and packed jokes as hard as punches. As a sober moviegoer who has never inhaled any such wacky tobaccy, Pineapple Express just kept eluding me. The movie is too slipshod, too misshapen, and it completely goes up in smoke by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Ben Stiller has been kicking around the idea for Tropic Thunder for nearly 20 years. It took a lot of time to get the script in fighting shape, but the time was well worth it. Tropic Thunder is tasteless and occasionally appalling but it is also wickedly, deliriously funny.

Set inside modern-day Vietnam, Hollywood is filming another epic war movie but this one’s in trouble. It’s over budget, behind schedule, and the first-time director (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star looking for another hit. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a crass comedian who’s after some real acting credibility. He’s also addicted to heroin and worries that people will only ever see him as a funny man who farts. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Oscar-winning actor who, thanks to makeup and a lot of hubris, is playing the film’s African-American sergeant. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper breaking into acting and is steamed that the Hollywood producers gave the sizeable black role to a white guy.

The director is at his wit’s end and being bullied by producers back in America. He is advised by “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the Vietnam vet whose story the film is based upon. Tayback says to get real emotion and real fear that the actors should be stranded in the jungle without their precious handlers and demands. So the director takes Speedman, Portnoy, Lazarus, Alpa, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a helicopter and out into the wild. Trouble is, the actors have been left in the middle of an actual drug war, except they think it’s all apart of the script.

Tropic Thunder is all things to all comedies. It could be tagged as being a bit incoherent but that’s because the movie has so much going on. It’s a sharp satire of Hollywood moviemaking and the raging egos of actors, it’s a send-up of Vietnam war movies and their bloody clichés, it’s a fairly worthwhile action film, and it’s a stupendously politically incorrect comedy with plenty of crude humor mixed side-by-side with genuine wit. It’s a comedy that has the potential to leave you aching from slapstick humor one second and biting satire the next. This feels like a complete comedy and not merely a series of sketches. Every character has an arc, some great moments, and each actor brings something different and something wonderful to the fray. This is clearly Stiller’s greatest achievement as a director.

The focus of Tropic Thunder is all over the place, and no one is safe from Stiller and his co-writers Etan Cohen and actor Justin Theroux. This is a brutal insider satire that plays it broad and loud. There are great jokes that ridicule the pomposity of the entire movie industry and the pitfalls of celebrity as a whole. I loved the jabs at celebrities going overseas and adopting children like they’re souvenirs. The movie has caught flak from disability groups that are mad about the movie’s liberal use of the term “retard.” I don’t want to say these people are missing the point of satire, or the fact that an R-rated comedy should offend on some level, but the joke is clearly on Hollywood and how movies exploit those with mental handicaps under the guise of telling their harrowing and inspiring stories. Movies have long been chronicling the adventurous lives of those with disabilities, which also has the side effect of making these people seem less like, well, just people. In the film, Speedman stared in a movie called “Simple Jack” about a mentally challenged boy who thinks he can talk with animals. Then the character has to pop up later in the film, complete with hysterical dialogue that blows apart just how exploitative these movies are (“I’ll see you in my head movies, but this is one head movie that makes my eyes rain”). It’s performed in just the right tone to make you laugh at the industry and the individual and not because of any disability.

The way the film establishes character back-story is genius. Tropic Thunder introduces all four major characters through fake commercials and trailers, like Grindhouse. The trailers are hilarious and a great way to kick off the movie. Stiller stars in a sinking action franchise where the world keeps being overtaken by fire (“Now, the one man who saved the world five straight times — will have to do it again”). The action franchise’s idea is to just reverse the scenario and, as sequels do, make everything bigger. Black’s trailer revolves around an obese family of super flatulent idiots all played by Black. The sequence is constant farting but it’s so over-the-top and pumped with contempt for lame-brained Hollywood comedies. The best trailer is the one that gives us Downey Jr.’s character, the esteemed Kirk Lazarus. Set in an Augustine monastery around the Middle Ages, Downey plays a monk who finds that he must conceal his inflamed passions for another man of the cloth (a figure I won’t spoil). Think of it as a 12th century Brokeback Mountain, and Stiller and company know exactly where to hammer Hollywood: the go-go eye stares, the hesitant naughtiness, and the ridiculous marketing angles – the title is inexplicably Satan’s Alley. The opening collection of fake trailers serves as perfect comedy bon mots for the feast that is to follow. They whet your appetite and may be the greatest opening 10 minutes of any comedy in memory.

Downey Jr. gives an unforgettable performance comprised of sheer brilliant comedic bliss. I loved every second he was onscreen and I fully expect the man to get an Oscar nomination for his work here. Now, the role of a Method actor playing a black actor naturally presents a tightrope that needs to be walked just the right manner to maintain a satiric tone that doesn’t turn ugly. Let me state clearly that blackface is never funny. It is repugnant and Hollywood has a rather depressing history with the unsavory practice (Gene Kelly and even Bing Crosby sadly did it). Tropic Thunder is not a Stepin Fetchit-style minstrel show where Downey makes eye-rolling racist stereotypes. The joke is not that Downey is playing a black man, the joke is that he is such an arrogant and egotistical actor that he thinks he can play anyone. Besides, Jackson chides him throughout the film for his unorthodox portrayal, which tells you where the filmmakers stand. Downey elevates every scene he steps into and gives a performance, like the film, that is densely layered with comedy. He never breaks character even when the cameras aren’t filming and even when he’s alone. He’s two steps removed; channeling a performance as a heralded Australian actor playing his idea of a 1970s black male. When Alpa derogatorily drops the N-word, Lazarus slaps him and then begins a speech with, “For over 400 years they have been using that word to keep us down,” and ends it reciting the lyrics to the theme song from The Jefferson’s. In that span of time, Downey takes you along on every stop in the dense, hilarious mind of Lazarus.

While the rest of the actors don’t ascend to Downey’s heights (years ago this would have doubled as a drug reference), the ensemble of Tropic Thunder works together smoothly and they help make the film so much more enjoyable. Black is great when he’s trying to be seen as a “serious” actor when they are filming. I love his rushed and hushed line deliveries. But he’s even funnier after going through the wringer of heroin withdrawal. A sight gag involving Black digging through his speedo had me in stitches. Stiller is playing his usual dimwitted blowhard but propels the plot forward. He knows exactly how to oversell for laughs, like when he’s being riddled with bullets in dramatic slow-mo or when he’s playing Simple Jack. Baruchel is a nice counter foil to the uncheck bravado and craziness of the other actors. Jackson has fun voicing his mounting vexation with Lazarus. Coogan and Nolte provide good small moments, and Danny McBride steals his scenes as a pyrotechnic special effects expert that wants to “make Mother Nature piss her pants.”

By now you’ve likely heard all about Tom Cruise’s small role in the movie as an irate, bald, fat, extremely hairy studio executive. It’s nice and amusing but I could have done with something different. Downey is unrecognizable in both physical appearance and through his speech; he fully inhabits a character that fully inhabits characters. Cruise, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable even with glasses, a paunch, and a shiny dome. It’s Tom Cruise playing a profane asshole but the joke wears thin. Cruise either needed to do something different or just be seen less, including his hip hop dance moves. And yet, Tropic Thunder has a running joke about Hollywood taking its beautiful A-listers and thinking that, through the power of makeup and superficial physicality, they can play any role. We’ve had a streak of Best Actress Oscar winners that have won accolades by stripping away their beauty and packing on the pounds (check out Charlize Theron in Monster). It seems like even the pretty girls are getting the ugly girl roles now; what’s a homely actress to do nowadays? So, in a way, Tropic Thunder is making fun of this line of thinking, that fat suits and some makeup are the great equalizer, but then it has Tom Cruise more or less falling into the same trap. He puts on a fat suit, a bald cap, but it’s still him and you hear Tom Cruise in every utterance. Maybe it would have been funnier if Cruise were playing a parody of himself since he is a studio executive at United Artists.

Tropic Thunder is a wildly funny movie that takes no prisoners when it comes to its sprawling satire. Stiller and company cut down the self-absorbed lifestyle and mentality inside the film industry and insecure actors. The film really shares the spotlight and each actor provides something different and welcome, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Downey Jr. gives a brilliant comedic performance that will be long remembered. The movie is rude, crude, stupid, smart, and all over the place thanks to such a broad comic canvass. It took many years for Stiller to finally get Tropic Thunder off the ground but the wait was worth it. This is a rare comedy that eels loose, hits hard, and may warrant multiple viewings just to catch all the jokes-within-jokes. This is a movie with plenty on its mind, perhaps too much, but I wish more comedies were as well executed and skillful in their gags about gas passing.

Nate’s Grade: A

Postal (2008)

I feel very strange at this moment. I may need to consult a physician. I’m undergoing an altogether new and confusing sensation.  You see, I’m hesitant, almost embarrassed to admit this, but I finally found a Uwe Boll movie that I, well, don’t hate. In fact, I was laughing with Postal and not derisively at it. I would never have guessed that a social satire co-written and directed by Boll, which begins with hijackers flying a plane into a large skyscraper, is actually intentionally funny. That’s not to say that the outrageous, violent, and messy film is verifiably good, but for the first time I feel like Boll is genuinely progressing as a filmmaker and may prove that he can craft a competently entertaining movie in the future. And if you know anything about Boll, that statement is akin to going from crawling to flying an F-14 fighter jet blindfolded while constructing a birdhouse out of Popsicle sticks.

The slapdash plot takes place in the small town of Paradise, Arizona. Postal Dude (Zack Ward, TV’s Titus, Bloodrayne II) is a guy who gets pushed around by life. His fat wife is cheating on him constantly, he’s bullied by rednecks that live in the neighborhood trailer park, and he can’t find a job to escape. He’s looking for any way out. His uncle Dave (Dave Foley) has started a doomsday religious cult of disenfranchised hippies. The IRS is currently targeting him and needs a quick money fix. Uncle Dave and Postal Dude scheme to steal the lone shipment of “Krotchy” dolls, a doll that resembles male testicles that is highly in demand (the Chinese shipment capsized and the crew all died, but luckily the dolls were saved). Also looking to snatch the dolls is a terrorist cell that includes Osama bin Laden (played by Jewish actor Larry Thomas, best known as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld). The plot isn’t important per se, but you will find yourself openly questioning why respected actors like J.K. Simmons and Seymour Cassel are doing in this mess. Michael Pare I understand. He doesn’t seem to get any work unless Boll throws him a beleaguered bone.

I think Boll has finally found a genre best suited for his cinematic interests. Setting Postal in the wacky comedy world has a freeing effect for Boll: he doesn’t have to adhere to any form of logic. His other movies usually suffered through continual lapses in thought and deed. With Postal, Boll can be as silly as he wants and not have to worry about disrupting his narrative. It should be no surprise then that Postal contains the best acting ever seen in a Boll movie. The good German has always had a seemingly inability to control his actors or provide any helpful direction, but finally he has found a genre that will work with actors giving unrestrained performances that are figuratively all over the thespian map. Shockingly, Ward and Foley both give quite good straight-laced comedic performances (nothing can prepare you for Foley’s generous dose of full-frontal nudity).
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Boll stuffs a lot of extreme elements into his movie, including Islamic terrorists, Osama bin Laden frolicking hand-in-hand with President Bush, inbred rednecks with garish teeth, sex scenes with the morbidly obese, crass racial stereotypes, sexual abuse gags, the media’s opportunism in response to tragedy, an ending that takes a page from Dr. Strangelove, a mentally handicapped martyr, and much more. The movie’s aim is to offend and it has many targets. Boll is no insightful political satirist but even he finds humor in the absurd. The movie is blunt and belittles everyone. Postal skewers religious fundamentalism/apocalyptic yearnings on all sides. There is one sequence where Ward is pinned down by rednecks, Islamic terrorists, and crazy cult followers. He tries appealing to their hearts and establishing common ground. “Well,” one of the terrorists says, “We all hate the Jews,” and then everyone nods solemnly. That’s funny. It’s not deep or biting but it is funny in setup and delivery. I give credit where it’s due. Postal takes some seriously demented detours that take advantage of the wacky, anything-goes atmosphere.

The movie’s jokes hit high and low but some of them definitely stick. The concept of our main character caught in a shootout at the welfare office is given a wicked twist when he crawls along the incapacitated victims looking to trade up a better waiting number. There are comedic riffs hat actually work. Postal isn’t clever or scathing, and is hardly subtle or nuanced, but I could honestly see Postal developing a small cult following, one removed from the cult following already built around bashing Boll.

Here is a list of moments that made me actually laugh: using a man in a vegetative state bound in wheelchair as a stepping stone to help climb a chain-link fence, Foley and Ward arguing decimal placements, watching Mini-Me actor Verne Troyer pushing a suitcase bigger than himself across a long shot, the fact that Osama bin Laden casually walks around in broad daylight to underscore the nagging fact that the man is still at large, the concept of using a cat as a silencer for a gun (fear not animal lovers, the cat lives), a “God shelter” in case of rapture, Osama attending a workshop on leadership styles and having his credit card declined, a character’s dying attempt to discover if he’s gay or merely bisexual, and the insane religious prophecy involving Troyer and 1000 horny monkeys. That last one is almost inspired in its sheer lunacy. The best part for many will be when Uwe Boll appears onscreen as himself. He admits he finances his crummy movies via Nazi gold and then, no kidding, the actual creator of the Postal video game appears and shoots Boll in the groin. For many, this is a vicarious moment to be savored.

Postal could have worked even better had Boll had a more consistent tone. Simply put, being offensive and shocking and wallowing in bad taste does not guarantee being funny. Watching a truck run over a baby carriage isn’t funny because it’s shocking. Without greater context or setup, it’s the equivalent of a tired and morose “dead baby” joke: tasteless but lacking any humor. And yet here are more missed comedic opportunities that Boll fails to capitalize upon. The missed comedic opportunities mount (Islamic terrorists eventually descend upon a redneck trailer park and … nothing?). Some jokes teeter but then hit a wrong note and become uncomfortable. Watching a black police officer (Chris Spencer, Bloodrayne II) brutally murder an Asian driver is not funny. Seeing a montage of children being massacred by stray gunfire is not funny and has no hope of being funny. When the movie utilizes realistic violence, it must walk a very delicate tone to spring laughs from darker territory. Realistic violence by itself is not funny because brutality is hard to milk for laughs.

Boll will drift and lose his comedy momentum. The highly publicized opening sequence is actually kind of funny. Two terrorists have hijacked a plane but then have second thoughts after they realize there are discrepancies about the number of post-martyrdom virgins. They begin to then analyze the gaps in theology and decide to turn the plane around and head to the Bahamas instead. With this segment Boll has taken a politically sensitive subject and given it a twist. Where the segment goes wrong is not when the passengers storm the cockpit and cause the plane to crash, this serves as irony. Where the segment goes wrong is when it cuts to a window washer atop a skyscraper and we watch the plane come closer and crash into a fiery blaze. The view doesn’t serve as any comedic punch line and places the viewer in an uncomfortable position of not only reliving 9/11 but also reliving it from a hapless victim’s perspective. It’s one example of a misstep that ruins the joke. By the film’s end it has turned into an incoherent bloodbath.

Not to kill Uwe Boll with praise, but Postal is also his best looking movie to date. The shot compositions are framed well, there is actual camerawork that gives off a slight Coen brothers’ vibe, and the cinematography by Boll staple Mathias Nuemann is crisp and clean. This is a good-looking movie that works within its limited budget and locations.

Postal wasn’t given much of a chance out of the gate. It has been sitting on a shelf for over a year, it was dumped into a small number of theaters opening the same weekend opposite the slightly higher profile Indiana Jones sequel. Boll arranged a free screening of the film and a majority walked out after the opening segment involving the hijackers. Postal is a bizarre and distasteful movie that relies too heavily on shock tactics and the idea that offensive equates humor. There are holes, inconsistencies, shallow satire, and many missed comedic opportunities, and yet, in spite of everything, I laughed at several points. This is Boll’s most intentionally entertaining movie to date. While it may sound like heresy, I would rather watch Postal again than the much more commercial and critically lauded Pineapple Express.

It feels like Boll is actually progressing as a filmmaker, however, I make this statement under the caveat that the confines of the wacky comedy genre forgive lapses in content. But I may not be alone. Boll submitted his flick to the Hoboken International Film Festival and actually won. Boll was named Best Director and the film was awarded Best of the Festival, which is a category based upon audience votes. Perhaps it’s just my lowered expectations with any Boll production, but Postal almost works; not quite but almost. And that’s a tremendous leap forward for a man whose movies have made me retire synonyms for “stupid.”

Nate’s Grade: C

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