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Column Fri Oct 30 2015

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Our Brand is Crisis, Suffragette, Truth, Burnt, Nasty Baby, The Assassin & Number One Fan


Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

The latest R-rated attempt at zombie-based comedy, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, makes the fatal mistake that many similar films do: thinking that a funny premise is the same thing as a funny movie. Or simply putting funny people in a movie is going to lead to a big laughs. By my count, four writers contributed the screenplay of this film (including director Christopher Landon, who wrote and helmed the last Paranormal Activity movie and penned the three before that, as well as Disturbia), which might be the scariest and funniest thing about it.

The premise is simple: three best friends (Tye Sheridan as Ben, Logan Miller as Carter and Joey Morgan as Augie) have been in scouting since they were kids, and as they move into adulthood, two of them (Ben and Carter) have decided to leave scouting behind in pursuit of being cool and dating girls. As they embark on what will likely be their final camping trip together (unbeknownst to Augie), some sort of zombie virus breaks out in their town at a laboratory doing something illicit with dead bodies (that's never really explained). Within hours nearly everyone in the town becomes a zombie or zombie food, and it's up to the scouts and a select few friends to get through the horde of walking dead and get to safety outside the town.

This is one of those dopey films where, even though every breathing minute of their journey is life or death, these kids never stop being kids. They keep talking about girls, scoring booze, and how they have to dispense with their nerdy scouting life. Carter is the main offender, stopping running for his life to take selfies or run into an unguarded strip club.

And then there are the rules. I'm a bit of a stickler for rules in a horror movie; I want to know what, for example, zombies can do and not do. In Scouts Guide, these are fast zombies, which I don't like but I do accept. You still have to shoot them in the head to kill them; fine. But then some of them are apparently capable of deception and a great deal of intelligence, while others are mindless, well, zombies. Case in point, when the boys hit their neighborhood strip club, a zombie stripper does a full routine before trying to eat our heroes. Right. I kind of dig the idea that animals become zombies too, and one of the films only truly funny sequences involves the local cat lady's (Cloris Leachman) herd of kitties going after the scouts.

The film's running gag involves the kids' zombified scoutmaster (David Koechner), who keeps getting hurt but never quite killed, so he comes back time and time again throughout the movie. Koechner is no doubt a funny guy, but his ability to speak is nixed very early on in the film, so there goes that sure-fire comedy gem. The film's one saving grace is the presence of Denise (Sarah Dumont), a cocktail waitress at the strip club whom the scouts team up with, making her the closest thing to an adult the film has for most of its running time. For some reason, the parents of these three kids are not only not seen, I'm pretty sure they are never even referenced.

I'll admit, I was a little surprised to see the great young actor Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life, Mud, Joe, The Stanford Prison Experiment) is this sub-par work, but I guess no actor is allowed a perfect record in terms of role choices. The truth is, if this film has been even moderately funny, I could recommend it as escapist shock comedy. But this is just a lame combination of four-letter words, bullying and horn-dog banter that amounts to almost no real laughs. From a gorehound's perspective, most of the blood and guts appear to be CG creations, so we're denied even our basic tactile, practical horror movie makeup. I held out hope for this one because of some of the folks involved in front of and behind the camera, but it just doesn't hold together — not even close. It's a lazy comedy, an unscary horror film, and an all-around entertainment suck. See it at your own peril.

Our Brand Is Crisis

Filmmaker David Gordon Green is a risk taker and a creative force that absolutely hates to repeat himself. Sometimes that leads him to unexpectedly wonderful work, like his recent Texas trilogy Prince Avalanche, Joe and Manglehorn. But it also leads to The Sitter or his latest, Our Brand Is Crisis, about a American political strategist brought to Bolivia to help a presidential candidate sagging in the polls improve his image and win the upcoming election.

I actually thought Green might be able to pull this one off since the source material is a fantastic 2005 documentary of the same name from Rachel Boynton. I wasn't in the least bit concerned that the screenplay (from Peter Straughan) turned the male inspiration for the lead character, Jane, into a woman (played by Sandra Bullock) because gender is unimportant to this story. Where the film fails is in the way it chooses to emphasize the wrong elements of this fascinating exercise in manipulation and deception. Our Brand Is Crisis is always about Jane and her team, which includes such fine actors as Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan as a smear campaign specialist who not only digs up dirt on the opposition, but invents rumors that the opposition must deny, thus making it a detrimental headline.

The fate of this unstable nation is clearly secondary. Granted, the team is the reason the original documentary was made because of the odd juxtaposition between the suit-and-tie campaign shapers and the rural peasants who were likely to decide the election. They are represented by the character of Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), an intern who also lives in an impoverished area with his two radical brothers. The candidate himself, Castillo (Joaquin de Almeida), is an American-educated rich guy who would clearly allow outside banks and industries into his country to take it over, something the people do not want. He's distant from the voters, and Jane sees that immediately and works to change the image without worrying so much about the man himself.

Jane is portrayed by Bullock for maximum Oscar-bait potential (the film itself is not at all awards bait, which is odd). She's borderline mentally ill, a former substance abuser, she hates being touched, and she has frequent psychological mini-meltdowns during the campaign process, due largely to her long-time rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who just happens to be working for the top candidate. The obvious fact is the Bullock and the film are trying to hard to make her interesting by making her troubled. Her job is interesting enough that there is not logical reason to make her full-court crazy, but that doesn't seem to stop the filmmakers from doing just that.

At times, Our Brand Is Crisis seems to be going out of its way to avoid working when it should be an easy recount of a wonderful story about how Americans have actually found a way to not only screw up their own electoral process but also those of other nations. Truly inspiring. Instead, it feels like 50 percent of Bullock's dialogue is her quoting other people, most of whom are way less whacky than her. It's easy to distract yourself for time by just admiring the talent on display here, but even the most die-hard Ann Dowd fan is going to lose patience with this one — a disappointment on several fronts.


With so many real-life British women who were an important part of the suffragette movement at the turn of the last century, it may be surprising that screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, the excellent BBC series "The Hour") chose to make the lead character of Suffragette a composite. But as played by the great Carey Mulligan (An Education, Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, Far from the Madding Crowd), Maud is a fascinating study in the less-discussed, working-class women who made up a great number of these supporters of the women's voting rights movement. She's sexually harassed at work, supported to a point by her husband (Ben Whishaw), and almost accidentally becomes interested in the movement.

Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), Suffragette introduces us to the societal upheaval caused by demonstrating and striking women from all walks of life, from Romola Garai's upper-class Alice Haughton and Helena Bonham Carter's Edith Ellyn (whose husband is also quite active for the cause), up through the top leadership (Meryl Streep pops in for one scene as Emmeline Pankhurst), forced into hiding to avoid arrest. Wisely the film also presents examples of a few of the spouses of these women, whose reactions to their wives' stance are varied to say the least. Brendan Gleeson is on hand as Inspector Arthur Steed, brought in to break up the movement by find their meeting places and arresting as many as possible, but even he sees the foolishness of this tactic, since nearly every incarcerated woman went on a hunger strike and became a living martyr for the suffragettes.

Shot almost documentary style with hand-held cameras and 35mm film, Suffragette doesn't shy away from some of the hard, ugly truths of the movement, including one especially nasty scene of Mulligan being force fed in prison. But a far more emotionally impactful moment comes when Maud's husband throws her out of the house for shaming their family, making it impossible for her to see their young children. The film is a bit uneven at times, and it fails to show the true size and scope of the movement at the time. There's a lot of telling about the importance of the women's vote without really showing some of the significant individual contributions many women made.

There's no getting around (and why would you want to) the fact that current headlines about everything from wage equality to sexual assaults on college campuses and in the military make the relevance of a film like Suffragette absolutely clear. I just wish the film has found a way to give certain real women, such as Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) more screen time as a way to honor their sacrifices to the cause. Still, Mulligan's harrowing, stark performance goes the extra mile to sell the film's emotional power. Maud makes the journey from washer woman to warrior militant convincingly, while wearing every personal loss on her face. It's a flawed film, to be sure, but there are elements to it that I enjoyed a great deal. I'm enough of a Mulligan devotee to say that any opportunity to watch her work is worth it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


This is a very good year indeed when we get a handful of very different and unforgettable performances by Cate Blanchett, beginning with her evil stepmother role in Cinderella and concluding later this year with her award-worthy work in the 1950s-set lesbian love story Carol. (Sorry, Knight of Cups from Terrence Malick must wait until next year.) But this week, her most straight-forward part comes in Truth, in which she plays former "60 Minutes II" and CBS News producer Mary Mapes, whose journalistic tactics and ethics were called into question when the program ran a story questioning then-President George W. Bush's service in the US National Guard.

One bit of information that seems to have been lost in the wake of this story running and the subsequent picking apart of sources is that Bush's record is still very much in question, since it was established that his particular division was commonly known as a place where the sons of rich Texans would go to avoid being shipped to Vietnam at the time. Not to mention that, as Mapes was going through likely the most difficult time in her life, she won a Peabody Award for uncovering the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

From first-time director James Vanderbilt (a successful writer of such films as Darkness Falls, The Rundown, Zodiac, White House Down and the two Amazing Spider-Man movies), Truth does an exhaustive re-creation of the path Mapes and her team (which includes journalists and experts played by Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss) as they slowly and carefully gather sources, triple-check facts and run them by upper-management (personified by Bruce Greenwood's Andrew Heyward, then-president of CBS News), all leading to the eventual airing of the story as reported by Dan Rather (Robert Redford), whose career was essentially ended by the scandal this story sparked.

Almost as remarkable as the way the story erupted was how quickly the machine began cranking against the report. The story aired just before Bush was re-elected president, so neither the timing of the piece nor that ferocity of the response was an accident. And while its investigation seemed to bare out that no significant mistakes in reporting were made, CBS's reaction was so severe as to be dishonorable.

My biggest problem with Truth is that it feels like it thinks it's important. The story was important, but this retelling of the events that produced said story is just a movie, no matter how well told. In case you forget, there are several speeches scattered throughout to remind us of how this story could change the flow of history. It's a film that would rather convince us of the significance of journalism than show us how it works in an interesting way. Having seen this in such close proximity to the upcoming release Spotlight, which is a far better take on the work that investigative journalists do, it's tough not to see the cracks in Truth's brand of storytelling. I'm not arguing the facts of the film, but I found myself frequently resistant to the structure of this tale.

Strangely enough, the unraveling of the story, the recanting witnesses (especially an ex-military man played by Stacy Keach), and the investigation (led by Dermot Mulroney) into the reporting is the most interesting part of the movie because the anger and desperation shown by the CBS players feels far more genuine when they are trying to save their jobs and, more importantly, their reputations. The film also never lets you think it's being anything but bummed that this report didn't derail the Bush re-election, especially when dirty trick players effectively crashed John Kerry's run with false claims that his own Vietnam War accounts were somehow inaccurate.

As it likely intends to and even with its shortcomings, Truth will likely make your blood boil from watching politicians get away with lying, news organizations buckle under corporate concerns, and the public's general disinterest in the facts. I'm borderline recommending the film for Blanchett's uncanny ability to always get to the heart of a character, and this role is no exception. She makes the rest of the film go down a little easier. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


People seem to think that the reason people pay attention to chefs these days, the way other people pay attention to rock stars or movie stars, is because they are loud, moody, unstable assholes. But the real reason chefs are interesting is because they're good. I've seen enough documentaries about quite well-adjusted chefs doing unbelievable things with the dining experience, and they don't scream at anyone. I'm guessing that the louder they get, the worse their dishes are — a bit of overcompensating, more than likely.

Strangely enough, the man who wrote the new film Burnt, Steven Knight (who also penned Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises and the recent Pawn Sacrifice, as well as Locke, which he also directed), also wrote a little film called The Hundred-Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren, which came out last year and is a much better version of a similar story, as both are about a world-class chef who wants to raise their restaurant's Michelin rating from two stars to three. The similarities end there, except that there's much less yelling in Journey.

Burnt centers on American chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), who washed out on drugs, booze and no sleep while running a wildly successful dining establishment in Paris several years earlier. Now sober for a couple years and back on the mend, he arrives in London to begin again, lining up old and new friends to help him see his dream through, and for some reason, everyone pretty much falls in line, including his old friend and two-star Michelin-rated-restaurant owner Tony (Daniel Brühl), whose kitchen Adam wants to take over and bump up to capture that elusive extra star. For a chef so immensely confident, Adam still has a lot of emotional baggage concerning his past, and the threat of him falling off the wagon or falling in love with some random woman is always around him. In the meantime, he wants to create transcendent dishes.

His staff begins with another old friend that he royally screwed upon his previous departure, Michel (played by the great Omar Sy). Adam also lines up an assortment of new faces, beginning with his new right hand Helene (Sienna Miller, Cooper's co-star from American Sniper), and he revisits his old rivals as well, in the form of fellow master chef Reece (Matthew Rhys). To keep his demons at bay (and provide the backers of the restaurant with a bit of insurance), Adam must visit a physician (Emma Thompson) frequently for drug testing and a general evaluation of his mental health, which gives the chef a chance to voice the mental gymnastics that are his thoughts.

When Burnt director John Wells (August: Osage County, The Company Men) stays in the kitchen and with the process of creation, it works pretty solidly. But that is, sadly, too small a part of this film, which decides to clutter the proceedings with a start-and-stop love story with Helene; an unnecessary (but still welcome) appearance by Alicia Vikander as Adam's ex-girlfriend and drug buddy, who happens to be the daughter of his recently dead mentor; and a ridiculous subplot involving drug dealers from Paris pursuing Adam for money owed from his lost years.

For every scene in Burnt that actually works, there are three or four that just ring false. I may be wrong, but I found it difficult to believe that a guy this intent on winning that extra star would be so easily rattled by mistakes in his kitchen, to the point where he's sweeping every flat surface of its contents and screaming hateful insults at his staff. His legion of personality problems don't make Adam interesting; they make his annoying and scruffy (for the record, he's always scruffy, even when he's doing good work). Cooper's technical skills as a chef seem legit, but the personality he has selected feels more like a type than a human being, and for that reason in particular, I'm taking away a star. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Nasty Baby

I think the primary reason I adore Sebastian Silva (Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, The Maid) as a filmmaker is that he's completely unpredictable. For some directors, this isn't necessarily a good thing, but he manages to find ways to make the exploits he's spotlighting seem aggressively and necessarily different from what every other movie (especially independent cinema) is giving us. With his latest, Nasty Baby, he gives us the strongest proof of all that Brooklyn hipsters can literally get away with anything and face zero consequences. As much as I hate the truth of that message, it makes for a filmgoing experience that is not easily forgotten.

In the movie, Silva and Tunde Adebimpe plays Freddy and Mo, a gay couple attempting to help their gal pal Polly (Kristen Wiig) have a baby. Freddy is the initial donor but when it is discovered that he sperm count is low, Mo reluctantly steps in as relief pitcher. Polly is a family practitioner who has zero interest in getting into a relationship with a man just to have a child, so this seems like the best option. The film has a bit of a rambling quality to its first half, thanks largely to its mostly improvised dialogue. It feels a bit like the Mumblecore films of the olden days, but with a bit more menace provided by the neighborhood homeless man, Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), who seems harmless most of the time, but tends to come on a bit too strong when Polly comes to visit Freddy and Mo, to the point where he grabs her to stop her from being scared of him.

In Nasty Baby's early moments, it feels like you're hanging out with friends, taking about silly things but also broaching more serious subjects, such as bringing a new life into the world and what it means to be a parent. Even with Freddy's somewhat fiery temper concerning Bishop's harassing ways, it's clear that these friends (which grows to include Alia Shawkat as Wendy) are about as harmless as can be. Which makes the film's chaotic turn so unexpected and disturbing.

In any other film, a 90-degree turn like the one this movie makes would change the path of its characters' lives forever. But with Nasty Baby, that isn't necessarily the case. You don't know whether to laugh or cry, to be shocked or amazed. A portion of this work seems aimed squarely at people who criticize films that don't keep a consistent tone. I happen to love this film because it has the guts to shift tones so dramatically that it might scare people away. And no, it doesn't have to justify it, but it does do it for a specific reason. And by the end of the film, when things have more or less returned to normal, well, in the context of this story, that might be the most shocking thing about it.

On top of that, the observances into a certain way of Brooklyn living are quite funny and insightful. The performances are not just good; they require a certain malleability. I've marveled in recent years at the choices that Wiig has made as an actor, especially more serious roles in such films as Welcome to Me, Skeleton Twins, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and even The Martian. But in Nasty Baby, she shows her skill at being breezy and free-spirited, without resorting to going jokey. It's actually quite refreshing to see someone who is so deft at creating and fine-tuning characters do something that appears more natural and organic in origin. The whole film has that feeling, actually, with the exception of the aforementioned bizarre left turns. This is an independent film that is actually attempting something unusual and making it work. If you're not afraid of the odd, Nasty Baby will likely floor you.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. Nasty Baby star Kristen Wiig and director/star Sebastian Silva will attend post-screening Q&As after the 5pm and 8pm shows on Friday, Oct. 30 (moderated by former Dissolve critic Scott Tobias), and Saturday, Oct. 31 (moderated by yours truly). I believe both 8pm shows are sold out, but there may still be tickets available for the 5pm shows on both nights.

The Assassin

I'm not sure I could pass a test on the politics at play in director Hou Hsiao-hsien's magnificent epic The Assassin, but in the end, all that truly matters rests at the heart of this film — a singularly stellar performance by Qu Shu as Nie Yinniang, a young woman who was abducted as a girl by a nun (Sheu Fang-yi), who then trained her to be the greatest assassin of her day (the day in question being 9th-century China). The opening sequence that lays out Yinniang's backstory is shot in luscious, almost hypnotic black and white, which then switches to vibrant color when the film jumps ahead 13 years to Yinniang's return from exile after years of killing corrupt leaders in the Tang Dynasty in her trademark black costume, working in almost total silence.

She has been sent back home with the mission of killing the powerful governor of Weibo, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), who also happens to be the man she has been promised to in marriage. The mission and her feelings for Lord Tian force her to confront issues concerning her parents, her emotions and her training. Marking his first film in nearly eight years, director Hou Hsiao-hsien (who won Best Director at Cannes this year and previously made such works as Goodbye, South, Goodbye; Flowers of Shanghai and Café Lumière) shot the film in 35mm, and the slightly grainy feel of the image only adds to its timeless quality.

The wire-based martial arts is handled so subtly and without flash that you may actually miss the special effects portion of The Assassin, which is Taiwan's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The film is largely quiet and evenly paced, punctuated by explosions of violence and effortless action. One of the most amusing aspects of the film are the scenes where Yinniang confront a would-be target, discovers that they are evenly matched within a minute or so, and then retreats, realizing that a straight confrontation will only lead to a draw. She will return when the element of surprise will give her her greatest advantage. Her gift is killing in an instant, not in a long, drawn-out battle, and it's a fascinating way to devise a martial arts film.

The Assassin leans as heavily on political discussion as it does in haunting images of killers lying in wait behind thin walls, ready to strike. And there's also a heightened emotional component that seems to confuse Yinniang more than it inspires her to be a better person. There's a short speech given by Lord Tian about a pair of jade pieces shared by him and Yinniang that is quite moving, and gives us one of the few real senses of how he feels about his would-be killer. The film's visual sense is so on point as to almost make you lose track of the story in favor is simply staring as the composition of the landscapes and those moving through it. The painfully gorgeous images also reflect the sense of the characters' internal conflicts — doing what makes sense in their hearts versus what they are duty-bound to carry out.

The Assassin is the complete package, but if you prefer your martial arts films with quick pacing and loads of blood, step out of line for this one. This is an entirely different entity that bears little resemblance to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Grandmaster (other notable action films by typically non-action directors). This is work that places value on being understated, giving us time to take in the entire frame and complete scope of the story, making us realize that even someone who is trained to take a life without thought has a sense of right and wrong. It's a strong and powerful movie that is worth a look, if only for the qualities that separate it from the cinematic world around it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Number One Fan

Most films that concern themselves with the phenomenon of fandom typically paint the fan as someone existing on the lunatic fringe, with murder in their eyes and possession on their minds. But the truth is, most fans of any singer, actor or other variety of artist are fairly respectful, bordering on little more than being annoying in asking for a selfie. But the new French offering from actress-turned-first-time-director Jeanne Herry presents us with a scenario that I haven't seen before in movies: what if a celebrity uses the undying affection of a fan to get away with nothing short of murder.

Anchored by an utterly believable performance by Sandrine Kiberlain (The Women on the 6th Floor, Violette) as Muriel, Number One Fan paints her as the adoring, long-time fan of singer Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte). She papers her bedroom walls with his handsome image, attends every nearby concert, follows his exploits in the gossip rags, hangs out by the stage door hoping for a glimpse or a glance, and even occasionally writes him loving letters about how much his music means to her. Apparently at one point many years earlier, she even parked herself outside his Paris home and just watched, never approaching him or the house, but that doesn't make it any less stalkerish.

It's established fairly early that Lacroix's relationship with his girlfriend is incendiary, with her flying off the handle about his whereabouts and how long he spends away from her. At a late-night poker game at him home, his friends witness some rather aggressive, destructive behavior on her part, which breaks up the party and forces him to confront her after she's trashed his house. She strikes him several times before he pushes her away, causing her to fall to the floor and a large object comes off the shelf and lands on her head, killing her instantly. Rather than call the police, in a panic, he wraps her body in a blanket, throws the body in his trunk, and dives into his files of fan letters, finding one from Muriel that strikes him as perfect. And without warning, he arrives at her doorstep asking for help, with her all too willing to give it.

What follows is a fascinating examination at the lengths we will go to to be close to those we idolize. Muriel sees this as an opportunity to befriend this singer she adores, even though he makes it clear that in order for his plan for her to dispose of the body to work, they can have no contact for quite some time, which does not sit well with her. Because Muriel screws up the plan, the body is found fairly quickly in the woods near her mother's house, where she just visited, casting a great deal of suspicion on her, with the police painting her as the obsessed fan who killed the girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage. Strangely enough for Lacroix, it's the perfect scenario for him to hide behind, since any discussion by Muriel of his involvement sounds like fantasy to anyone who knows her tendencies to spin tall tales about her dull hairdresser's life.

One of the most amusing aspects of Number One Fan is that the police detectives investigating the murder are a male-female team who are involved in a nasty breakup after a passionate office fling, so there's little doubt they'll either be too distracted to investigate properly or they'll screw something up during the process. Even their superior officer seem intent on steering suspicion away from the singer and onto the groupie. Director Herry has a strong sense of the breaks celebrities are often given in the legal system and the entitlement they feel toward life in general. Lacroix simply assumes Muriel will fall in line and stay there until he blesses her with her presence once again. Wisely, the film stays away from any hint of a sexual vibe between the two, although Muriel certainly seems willing.

Taking a page from the crime dramas of Claude Chabrol, Number One Fan is a smart, crackling, darkly humorous, near-perfect portrait of the quiet desperation of extreme fans, who use their adoration to fill a hole in their lives. It's also a sly take on how much celebrities need their fans as both an ego boost and a support system that they frequently acknowledge but rarely engage. The film plays in Chicago from Monday, Nov. 2 to Thursday, Nov. 5 at Facets Cinémathèque.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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