Film review – Pandorica

Well, hello there internet friends. I’m back! I took another little writing hiatus to do more book outlining (on which I made great progress) and visit my awesome friend Alex in Australia (on which I ate many delicious indigenous animals). Despite my concerns about that crazy island, I managed not to get mauled by any adorable furry creatures or giant bugs and return home in one piece to you good people.

Although, that meant leaving behind one of my favorite people on that crazy island. Alas.

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Now that I’m finally over my jet lag and back in the swing of things, I’m delighted to get back to the blog with another film review. After my recent watching of Refuge I’ve been optimistic about the increasing quality of independent horror in both writing and production value.

When I saw that another indie film I’d had my eye on was available, I naturally jumped at the chance to see it. Pandorica could be categorized in a number of ways – thriller, horror, apocalyptic, dystopian – and I think that’s one of the really appealing aspects of the film.

It picks up several generations after what they call The Great Reset, some sort of worldwide disaster that decimated all but the most isolated communities. Three youth of the Varosha tribe – Eiren, Thade, and Ares – are preparing to take part in a selection test, during which the tribe’s current leader Nus will select his replacement.

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The selection test is a rather vague process that comes with folklore (told over a campfire, naturally) and is carried out whenever the previous leader feels the next crop of kids are old enough to compete. Normally that would be too generic for my taste, but I do think Pandorica‘s story benefits from being intentionally ambiguous. When things seem to go awry during the test, there’s still a little voice in the back of your head that’s saying, “But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to play out.”

What immediately grabbed my attention even from the trailer was how intensely dark it is. And I mean that quite literally. Most of the action in the film takes place over the course of one night, illuminated only by the moon or torches or campfires. Dealing with shadows in that way is seriously tricky business and I think they handled the self-imposed lighting challenge wonderfully.

There are also several sweeping aerial landscape shots that are absolutely breathtaking. In particular I was enamored with a series of wide pans over the forest as they traveled from their tribal home to the location of the leadership test. This can be attributed partly to the inherent natural beauty of the set location, but even that can’t stand on its own without skilled camera and editing work.

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The plot is not the most original construction – A group of headstrong kids in their late teens or early 20s compete against each other in a selection process to shape the future of their community. That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to modern dystopia, and director Tom Paton has even said in interviews that he sees the setting more as a way to explore interpersonal relationships than explore a likely apocalypse scenario.

The film at its core is about leadership, and earning the right to call yourself a leader. I believe in today’s world, power it [sic] too easily acquired by some and is likely the reason that people at the bottom find themselves mistreated… I think it was about looking at a big message and then applying to the world I know so that hopefully, whatever industry you are in, you can see shades of how you lead and who gets promoted in these characters. (lovehorror.co.uk)

In another interview, he even went so far as to self-identify the setting as cliché.

After reading his thoughts, I went back and watched some sections a second time. A lot of interactions that had previously felt sort of “apocalypse light” to me now play out like the most amazingly intense office team-building retreat ever taken. (And if you’ve ever been subjected to one of those personally, you’ll understand why that’s appealing.) Whether that was his intent or not is kind of irrelevant if it means I enjoy the experience more through that lens.

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The film is not without flaws. There were character actions that were easy for me to telegraph. You don’t really get much introduction to the world beyond a text-on-screen opening montage. Some of the potential impact of the script was lost by having the main characters speak English using an awkwardly manufactured accent.

In the grand scheme of things these flaws are really just minor bumps on an otherwise picturesque road. There’s plenty of imagination involved in setting the scene – especially in makeup and costumes – and it’s easy to see just how much heart went into making this film. It’s clear the cast was fully on board with Paton’s vision and I appreciate his attention to detail.

My overall recommendation – Watch Pandorica. The film takes a well-worn genre and uses it as the backdrop for something intimate and unusual. Though the plot is more about the journey than the destination, it’s still an interesting journey to take. And if nothing else, the movie is a visual feast.

3/5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film review – Refuge

Cbq_dLcWAAAbBvTIf you’ve been around the blog long enough, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for an apocalyptic tale. Even though I tend to gravitate to zombies, I’m an equal opportunity end-of-the-world enthusiast.

In fact, having spent six years living in Beijing (with a population of over 20 million crammed into tight quarters), I really connect with storytellers who imagine the collapse of society as the product of disease rather than creatures. I was once on a Beijing bus so crowded that a man couldn’t help sneezing directly into my mouth. In addition to being terribly grossed out, I had the flu within 12 hours.

 

I also made the grand mistake of watching Contagion for the first time at the start of the 13 hour flight back to China. Halfway through the film I realized everyone around me was coughing and spitting into paper bags and I spent the next 12 hours very consciously trying not to touch my face.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Refuge resonated with me in a very real way. The premise of the movie is that a so-called “Nightmare Superbug” resistant to antibiotics has spread globally, decimating the population. The country falls apart, and the only people left are those who have isolated themselves and avoided contact with the infected.

While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, I am going to talk a bit about the characters and very general plot points. Keep this in mind as you read ahead.

REFUGE: Available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube & VOD on Comcast, Time Warner, Fios, etc. from Passerby Films on Vimeo.

Aside from a montage flashback during the opening credits that outlines the pandemic, the movie is set several years after the complete collapse of society. Survivors have been reduced to roving bands of scavengers, trying to glean whatever scraps of food and medicine are left in abandoned homes, all while continuing to protect themselves from coming into contact with any infected corpses.

In essence, Refuge is a movie about tribes. There are no lone wolves, no solitary hunters, but instead people have grouped themselves into what could be considered post-apocalyptic family units. Jack, Nell and their daughter Birdie are an actual biological family, with the supplementary addition of Kyle – an artist they took in and who serves as a secondary patriarch.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a sort of hybrid of The Lost Boys and the Manson Family, a pack of young men who revel in violence and mayhem. Led by the cold, brutal, and arguably sociopathic Rez, they take whatever they want and kill indiscriminately. Russell is running with Rez’s crew, but it’s clear that he’s not on board with their methods. When he crashes his motorcycle trying to get away from them, Jack finds him in the road and takes him home to set his broken leg.

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Other groups cross their paths over the course of the movie, each categorized as being on either extreme side of this morality scale. It’s not necessarily new ground being covered here in terms of characters or themes, but that’s par for the course when it comes to exploring human nature. It’s not about coming up with a unique scenario, it’s about coming up with a unique approach to immersing the viewer in that scenario.

This movie’s approach immerses you fully, putting you right in the thick of things. You see, more than anything else, ambiance is what revs my horror engine. Refuge leans heavily on the sounds of an abandoned world – crickets chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, the labored sound of breath through a gas mask, papers rustling, wind pulling at branches – and all that natural atmosphere makes you as the viewer really feel the weight of the emptiness. The soundtrack weaves in between these sounds and amplifies their impact.

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The loyalty Jack’s family members (related and adopted, old and new) show to each other is fierce, and when they are not together the separation anxiety is real and intense. He can be a bit sharp, to the point where it feels almost cruel, but you get the impression that this is a well-honed survival reflex and his family understands and respects that. None of them seems to question why they press on, they just continue to live because living is what they do.

In my opinion, Refuge nails the pacing – not so much slow as it is deliberate, punctuated with moments of intensity. It is not an action-packed thriller in the traditional sense, but it still does have both action and thrills. For maximum effect, I’d recommend you watch it with the lights out, on a larger screen. If you’ve got surround sound, even better. It’s available to purchase VOD from a variety of services.

3.5/5 stars

Film review – The Witch

There has been a lot of buzz floating around about The Witch ever since it hit the festival circuit last year. Rolling Stone promised it would “scare the hell out of you” and declared it “a crafty calling card brimming with beauty and terror” for first time writer/director Robert Eggers. The Atlantic gushed over it, saying it was “a film that conjures its scares not from sharp jumps, but from the eerie hostility of the untamed American wilderness.”

And on, and on, and on.

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I read praise heaped upon praise for the stark foreboding of the unforgiving forest, for the raw desperation of the isolated family, for the power of superstition to cast doubt on those we love most. Critics could not say enough about how wonderfully different this was from your run-of-the-mill slasher, and comparisons to the atmospheric magic of It Follows were plentiful.

To a certain extent, I blame the hype for coloring my viewing experience (a phenomenon perfectly addressed here) but then again It Follows was also hyped and I thought it delivered on its promise several times over. The Witch, on the other hand, left me feeling remarkably underwhelmed as the end credits rolled.

Some spoilers ahead – Plot points and themes

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My first instinct as the lights came up in the theater was to laugh. Not the nervous laugh of someone who has just been emotionally drained by a fine piece of psychological terror, but rather the amused “you got me” laugh of someone who was just tricked into paying to see the equivalent of a student film with a decent costume budget.

The atmosphere, while decidedly desolate, didn’t strike me as all that creepy. But maybe that’s because I took many childhood trips to New England to visit family and I understand that it really is that damp and gray for chunks of the year. More than anything else – more than fear or shock or terror – I honestly just felt sorry for eldest daughter Thomasin.

Right at the start she definitely looked pissed that her dad was too weird to function in town as he thanked the committee of men in funny hats for banishing him from society. So there she is, stuck on the edge of a forest void of edible plants, living in an attic with a younger brother who can’t stop drooling over her cleavage, creepy twin siblings who talk to the family goat, a father whose only skills include chopping wood and praying, and a mother who likes the idea of having babies but not taking care of them.

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Thomasin is old enough to remember what it was like living home in England (where they had “real glass” in the windows) and there is a point where she desperately tries to get her brother to remember as well so that she has someone to commiserate with. She’s the one watching the infant when he disappears (either by wolf or by witch, depending on which weirdo family member you ask) and her mother refuses to forgive her for losing track of the baby she only seemed interested in nursing but not raising.

The film is, at its core, a puberty allegory with all the requisite elements – temptation, loss of innocence, mood swings, anger, desire, and blood.

So. Much. Blood.

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It’s the confusion of “becoming a woman” (a phrase I really detest) coupled with the societal fear of the power of an independent female. And even the independent female, manifested here as the witch, is only granted her power by handing over an unspecified aspect of herself as payment to the devil.

Basically, they could have called this “We Need to Talk About Thomasin” and cut through to the heart of the matter. The family is full of suspicion and doubt about the mysteriously witchy happenings, but there’s nothing unexpected about that since they’re ultra-religious (I suspect perhaps Calvinists?). The same historical setting that provides the isolation also provides predictability in terms of reactions to unexplained phenomena.

Twins speaking in tongues? Must be a witch. Son wanders home naked and disoriented? Totally a witch. Go to milk the goat and get an udder full of blood? Oh yeah, that’s some witchcraft right there. And the obvious person to point the finger at is the exasperated teenage girl who just can’t seem to embrace the prayer and solitary confinement her parents thrust upon her.

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The actors all did admirable jobs in their roles, and I really have nothing bad to say about their performances. They were doing their best with the source material they were given, and I think the youngest children in particular were well cast. Anya Taylor-Joy has some great nuanced facial expressions. Ralph Ineson captures the essence of a man who is in way over his head. Black Phillip really sells the whole demon goat thing.

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But in the end, neither the atmosphere nor the plot were engaging enough to hold my attention. I feel like I need to qualify this by saying that this is not because I don’t appreciate subtlety in the horror genre. I love The Babadook and Let The Right One In. I also love Hellraiser and Halloween. I appreciate a slow mood-builder and I appreciate a bloodbath, each for their own merits.

I didn’t dislike The Witch because it was atypically atmospheric. I disliked The Witch because it was boring. Then again, I’m at a loss trying to come up with a better scary movie about a witch, so maybe this is just the best we’re going to get.

2/5 stars

Nachos for One

This idea started a few days ago with an offhanded comment as I shared a link on Facebook.

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My friends, of course, responded in kind with their own quippy remarks. “Nachos for Two… for One, Please,” said one, replied to by another with “Nachos for Four…One Fork, Please.” (And so on, and so on…)

The thing is, these all started sounding like chapter titles to me. Beyond chapter titles, I started thinking that they sounded like individual stories. I’ve been fighting a nasty cold for the better part of a week, so I wasn’t sure if I had a fun idea forming or if I was just loopy on cold medication.

So, I thought about it for a few days.

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And after thinking about it, I’ve decided that it is an enjoyable idea rolling around in my cold-addled brain.

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Tell me your story – fiction, nonfiction, poem, cartoon, limerick – however you want to tell it, the only stipulation being that it involves nachos somehow. I recognize that this is very silly, but I think that’s what makes the idea so fun.

I’ll emphasize that this really is just for fun, at least for now. I’m a big proponent of writers being compensated for the work they do online; I think that it’s a shame there are so many websites that won’t even deign to consider paying writers for their work.

This project is not work. It’s a bit of a goof, a chance to flex some creative muscles, play around with an idea for the sake of playing. I’d like to regularly post these stories on the blog, and if you have any other links or passion projects you would like for me to link to when posting your story I would gladly include those as well.

If you’d like to get in touch about a submission, you can reach me through my contact form, send me a message through the Facebook page, or give me a shout on Twitter.

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Film review – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I have been excited for this movie to be released since I first heard about the project.

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Despite the sarcastic exterior, I have a real soft spot for Jane Austen’s society stories. And you all know how I feel about zombies. So when the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel adaptation was published, my inner romantic and inner apocalypse enthusiast finally found some common ground.

Seth Grahame-Smith did an extraordinary job of taking the source text and reimagining it as taking place in the same period in time – except with zombies. The women still have to navigate the same social minefield, but they also have to navigate hordes of the undead as well. They have to figure out which type of weapon is both efficient at decapitating zombies and also ladylike enough to wear under a dress. They have to balance their training as warriors with the expectation that they will eventually be wives.

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It is an incredibly novel premise, and something I had yet to see done before he wrote it. We may not live under the same social constraints of Austen’s time, but there are still a lot of deeply ingrained expectations of women-of-a-certain-age. In my eyes, the addition of zombies to a marriage plot is the ultimate mic drop.

As a fan of the genre, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the portrayal of women in zombie movies is often as objects one step up the chain from the undead. So, the idea of seeing a squad of Regency era sisters smashing the skulls of “unmentionables” and blowing the minds of society snobs – on the big screen – was particularly tantalizing.

The Bennet sisters give off a no-nonsense vibe, sparring with each other at home and fighting alongside each other when the need arises. When their backs are up against a wall, they play it cool.

Though they perhaps play it a little too cool, a little too disaffected. Jane could have been sweeter; Elizabeth could have been more impertinent; Lydia could have been more flighty; Mary could have been more than a just a pair of glasses; Kitty could have been… more (I only knew her character was her because she was the fifth).

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All of that is neither here nor there, though. Far be it from me to give notes to an actress on her lady-warrior balance. The fight scenes were satisfying, but short. The romance scenes were charming enough, but lacked any fire. The standout cast member, without a doubt, was Matt Smith in the roll of simpering nitwit Mr. Collins.

The reason I enjoyed Smith’s performance above the others was the same reason, ultimately, I feel the movie didn’t fully reach its potential. He understood the wry humor of all of this – of the business of marriage, of Regency ladies fighting zombies, of zombies even as a general concept – and that understanding translated into the shallowest character of the book showing the most depth on screen.

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I could have done with about 400% more humor in this movie. It was there from time to time in a passing line or a little gesture, but it was nowhere near as sharp as either author’s text.

When I first walked out of the theater, I felt like they had made an admirable attempt at translating the adapted text to the screen. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like something wasn’t sitting right with me. Not having read it since it was first published, I went back and thumbed through the book and figured out what felt so… off.

They added an entirely new story to the movie. Not new like adding zombies to Austen, but new like adding an entire subplot that wasn’t originally added when he added zombies to Austen. Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that Wickham goes in a completely different direction from the book and the movie is poorer for it.

It boils down to not having a clear audience in mind. In the Venn diagram of rabid Austen fans and rabid zombie fans, there is a limited overlap (of which I happen to be a member). Yes, the book sold well when it was released. However, I think a lot of that was due to the novelty that has since worn off with subsequent adaptation projects.

It seems as though, in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, they amped up the action in all the wrong places. They added elements that were unnecessary. They flattened out a lot of character attributes.

Yet despite all that, I still believe if you enjoyed the book you’re going to enjoy the movie. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s something different and the fact that it was such a struggle to get it made is telling of why we need more movies like this:

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2.5/5

The year in reviews

Recently I’ve had a bit of brain spark on an idea for a novel that has been stewing in my head for a while. I’m going to try to focus my creative energy on outlining it, which probably means fewer blog posts for a few weeks. Rather than leave you in the lurch, I thought I’d pull together everything I’ve recommended you watch over the past year.

Though I’m not much for year end roundups, anyone who knows me well knows that I can’t pass up a perfectly good opportunity to compile a list.

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I started out the year with a few thematic collections, the first being romantic films that are decidedly odd. This includes FrequenciesIn Your Eyes, and The One I Love. As of this post date, all three are still available to stream on Netflix. They’re all worth watching for different reasons, but if you only have the time or inclination to watch one, I’d say go with The One I Love.

Original post: Stream themes – Bizarre romance

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The second thematic collection were apocalyptic (or otherwise dystopian) movies. A personal favorite category, which some might say makes me a bit of a downer. But I see my interest in societal collapse as a curiosity in human behavior rather than a desire for actual chaos.

The list is mostly television, with a film pick and also an honorable mention that gets points for trying (but ultimately failing to entertain with) a novel premise.

Original post: Stream themes – Flirting with disaster

It Follows - Sisters

My next review was also one of my favorite films of 2015, and definitely a film I’m glad I first saw in the theater. While you no longer have the opportunity to see It Follows on the big screen, you should watch it on a screen that has a robust sound system.

The film is not really all that scary, at least not in a classic horror way. But it is the absolute best kind of creepy, and if you’re someone who finds atmosphere to be engine-revving (I definitely am), then you are in for a treat.

Original post: Film review – It Follows

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What struck me in particular about Advantageous is that it’s dystopian sci-fi with a decidedly female voice. It was written and directed by a woman, all the main characters are women, and its messages are particularly poignant to the female viewer.

Which is not to say that this is a film only for women – I think that men could also gain a lot of insight from watching it. More than the messages though, it’s also beautifully shot and expertly acted.

Original post: Film review – Advantageous

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Next up were two very goofy reviews, and I will admit that I rated them on my B-movie scale rather than a more discerning cinematic one. If you don’t like cheesy horror, they are not for you. But if you do like cheesy horror, they are cheddar-tastic.

Zombeavers (pictured above) is campy as all get-out, but it’s really not trying to be anything otherwise. And Love in the Time of Monsters (pictured below) has its tongue squarely planted in cheek. Both are absolutely ridiculous, but the second is definitely my favorite of the two.

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Original posts: Film review – Zombeavers and Film review – Love in the Time of Monsters.

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This final series of reviews is probably the most ambitious project I’ve ever tackled on this site. It’s also my favorite undertaking of the year, and the longest post I’ve ever written here.

In a moment that was either madness or genius (I am still undecided) I decided to spend a long weekend watching every Hellraiser film in order. With nine total movies in the series, that meant three each day for three consecutive days.

I’ll understand if you don’t want to read the post (either because you’re just not into gore or you’re just not into long reads) but I hope you do. It would be nice to feel as though I’m not just blogging into the void.

Also some, but not all, of the Hellraiser movies really are worth watching. Clive Barker has a unique way of crafting monsters who are not 100% monstrous, and Pinhead is a prime example.

Original post: The nine lives of Pinhead – a Hellraiser experiment

Bonus round

While this isn’t a movie review, I couldn’t leave this post off the list. Partially because I’m proud of the wordplay and partially because, even though I vowed not to, I actually caved and watched the movie a few nights ago.

The movie was absolutely awful. The post, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful.

Resolute reflections

It’s a funny little dance we all do – We get to the end of December and wonder where the year went. We look back on the past twelve months, focusing on all the things that didn’t go as planned, the things left undone, and tell ourselves that next year will be different. We resolve that next year will be the year that things are different.

Twelve months later there we are again, sitting at the end of December, dwelling on time we wish were better spent. Spin, reverse, repeat.

I often say that I don’t believe in regret. Of course, not believing in it and not feeling it are two different beasts altogether. For the most part I manage to keep facing forward, channeling my emotional energy toward the now and the next. But I still get stuck from time to time, rewinding my mental tape and playing back an awkward exchange or opportunity I left behind.

This year I’d like to shake up my routine. Go freestyle, if you’ll allow me to stretch this terribly cheesy dance metaphor.

(Ok, maybe not quite that freestyle.)

In all seriousness, this year I am resolving to strike the idea of resolutions from my mind. I am resolving not to let another year go by before I take the time to take stock of my life. I should (and will) be thinking not just about what I want but how I’m advancing toward what I want – And you better believe I’ll be thinking about it more often than once every twelve months.

And since there’s no better time than the present, I’ll throw the first thought out here – I want to spend more time with people. With old friends, with new friends, with friends I haven’t made yet, with friends who might just be more than friends.

Somewhere along the line – maybe because I lived abroad for so long, maybe because it was just easier, probably a combination of both – I transferred most of my human contact into the digital world. That isn’t to say it isn’t meaningful contact (I wouldn’t count you out, intrepid readers), but it’s not enough. Nor should it be.

I am going to reach out more, try to get out of my comfort zone (and consequently out of my comfy pants) and do more with others. If you count yourself amongst my friends, I hope you’ll reach out too. I used to think that I shouldn’t have to ask, that surely people would extend invitations if they really wanted to see me. But when I’m not asking either, how can I expect you to do the same?

If you don’t yet count yourself amongst my friends, I still hope you’ll reach out. Last year I wrote a post about letters, in which I asked people to make time for snail mail, and it resulted in some wonderful correspondence. Including a lovely reader who just recently sent me these art cards. I’ve hung them on the wall as a reminder that stretching my hand out into the unknown is not just possible – it’s necessary.

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