Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

Li’l Quinquin

January 3, 2015

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“Open that cow’s ass,” commands a detective, “and show me what’s inside.” Before long, the growl of a chainsaw disrupts the lapping quietude of the oceanside crime scene. Welcome to the phlegmatic but askew reality of Li’l Quinquin, a four-part saga written and directed by Bruno Dumont for French TV and just now opening in America in limited release. Lengthy but never boring, the story comes divvied up into fifty-minute segments; the three hours and seventeen minutes march by like a Netflix binge-watch of your choice of quirky TV mysteries. Li’l Quinquin has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, but it also shares DNA with such creepy-cool freak-of-the-week programs as The X-Files and Fringe, what with all these cow carcasses turning up with human body parts inside them.

Genetic experiments? Alien shenanigans? If you seek resolution, you’re barking up the wrong mystery. Dumont, best known for a variety of bleak, severe dramas, would rather establish the community affected by, and possibly giving rise to, these weird events. Two cops — Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his right-hand man Carpentier (Philippe Jore) — move from suspect to suspect, confronting their own irrelevance when each suspect ends up in a cow. (Sample absurdist dialogue, in case my lede didn’t sell you: “I was sorry to hear about his body in a cow on the beach.”) Followers of Dumont’s earlier work have expressed surprise at the tone of Li’l Quinquin, which hews closer to the tongue-in-cheek, or at least to cosmic bemusement.

The eponymous character (Alane Delhaye) is a complex and prickly pear, a ten-year-old boy who likes to toss firecrackers into his own house. Quinquin is civilized enough to have a tender relationship with a local girl, but is nonetheless well on his way to a life of racist violence. We aren’t told how to feel about Quinquin or about anyone else; nobody in the narrative seems quite whole. The only person around who looks remotely Hollywood is a teenage girl who wants to sing on TV; her rather tone-deaf rendition of a song called “Cause I Knew” goes on interminably at least twice, once at the funeral of the first victim, where a gigglingly inept pastor almost derails the service and the organist plays bombastically and self-indulgently. Nobody seems to care about the dead woman except her widower, and he becomes cow stuffing before long. There’s even what might be a backhanded salute to superheroes when a kid dressed as “Speedy-Man” enters the picture, climbs a wall, and exits, leaving behind a chill of incongruous weirdness that outdoes the whole of Birdman (to say nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy).

I confess this is my first exposure to Bruno Dumont (but not my last). I make this confession to assure you that, though a background in Dumont’s prior work might help Li’l Quinquin work on a deeper level, it’s not mandatory. Feel free to jump right into this epic; it’s immersive, like a good thick novel, and the widescreen compositions, by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, showcase the enticing French countryside. It’s overall a soothing experience. The narrative isn’t heightened, and until the last half hour or so there isn’t even any non-diegetic music (why the movie finally allows some classical needle-drop is a question for more hard-nosed interpreters than I). The story stretches but is expertly paced — pacing is why a two-hour film can seem as though it’s crawling while a three-hour-plus work like this breezes by, and it’s a mystery of editing and the intuition of great moviemaking. Dumont uses the extra sprawl of his canvas and the luridness of his premise to indulge himself in the best, most playful sense. We don’t feel left out of the fun; we feel drawn in by the elliptical character-building and by the society on view, which we might say was splintered by the murders if we didn’t suspect it was pretty thoroughly splintered before.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONESMatthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.

The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.

Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.

The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.


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