Friday, December 29, 2006

Michael Lucas' La Dolce Vita

When publicity started spewing about a gay pornographic version of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita", it made me snicker. When Michael Lucas' publicity blitz went into full speed (including 'New Yorker Magazine'?!), my skepticism and 'Fellini Freak Loyalty' went into high gear, and I began to relish the idea of ripping him a new one for fucking with Fellini!

"Michael Lucas' La Dolce Vita" (dirs. Michael Lucas, Tony Dimarco, US, 2006, 186 mins.) is not so bad. Ok, with my arms crossed, I'd have to say it actually has a couple dramatically compelling scenes! It has been an odd year for American eroticism on film and video. (I qualify that statement as most of Europe and Asia have no qualms about mixing hard core sex within their dramas.) Earlier this year, John Cameron Mitchell created a stir by beginning his dramatic sex romp "Shortbus" with 'serious actors' achieving orgasm on screen. Michael Lucas is creating a stir by having 'porn stars' achieve serious monologues between orgasms. And with only a few exceptions, Lucas is fairly successful.

(For those of you looking for a detailed comparative analysis between the Lucas and Fellini versions, I completed one for Here, I am only going to speak to Lucas' version and try to keep from comparisons.)

Lucas begins his epic at a fashion show.

It is a large production, as far as my experience with adult media is concerned. He jams the screen with extras: patrons, models, stylists. I can not be sure about how much coverage he actually used on the scene, however the editing suggests that he had at least 3, if not more, camera crews working the large space. While capturing the freneticism backstage of a runway show, he is still able to squeeze in the first of 12 sex scenes that are spread through out the 3 hours and 6 minutes of video. It is a rushed scene between Ben Andrews and Jack MacCarthy, and proves to be the 'amuse bouche' before some real action begins!

As the production progresses, there is a noticeable amount of dialogue. Surprisingly to me (perhaps I am TOO cynical about these things?), there are no embarrassing performances. There isn't a moment where I winced and wished that 'Joe Bob' hadn't opened his mouth and destroyed the illusion. In fact, there are performers who accomplish quite the opposite.

Spencer Quest plays 'Preston Connors', the ill-fated host of the publishing party (aka 'Steiner' in the Fellini), and gives a polished and professional performance in his dialogue and a nearly inspired performance in his sex scene with Jamie Donovan, particularly when it is placed in context of his scenes before and after. His final monologue is deftly written by Tony Dimarco and touchingly delivered by Quest.

Savanna Samson plays 'Nicole', which is the Brit Ekland doppleganger. It is a non-sexual role, yet she plays it with a leading lady's gusto. Her line delivery along with her physical presence steal the moments she is in. Mind you, she has the BIG 'Trevi Fountain Redux' moment, but it still plays as one of the most romantic moments in the project. It is purely sensual, without being necessarily sexual as the two characters agree that they are not attracted to each other.

Michael Lucas would be the other party to the 'Trevi Fountain Redux' and has in fact cast himself as the lead, 'Max'. He is a cynical, burnt out gossip columnist who has put aside the dream of writing The Novel. Lucas does an exceptional job of carrying the role, and it is a tricky one, in that the actor can not go deep enough into the psyche of the man and what he is doing and witnessing. He is the audience's surrogate, villain and victim. We should be compelled to tag along his path of shallow self deception until we see it as well, if not better than he does himself. However, Lucas plays that moment at the very beginning. He sets up 'Max' to be a bored dilettante as he picks up a 'friend' (Jason Ridge), to go seeking a third to join them, even though 'Max' has a live-in boyfriend (Cole Ryan). Lucas is quite adept at this character, though my only hesitation my seem petty: his accent. Though it sort of works in this project that 'Max' might be considered Euro-Trash, I do not think that was the intention. Lucas would be much more successful with a diction coach and perhaps phonetic line readings. As it is now, the accent seems to be in his way.

Lastly, in this cast of DOZENS, Pete Ross plays this slimey little paparazzi with a certain panache that just made me want to slap him with a velvet glove! In just a single scene of dialogue, Ross completely fills the character. He has just two other scenes. One, his sex scene with Jonathan Vargas, which I found to be extremely hot! It is the best photographed and edited sex scene of the 12. Though it is nearly gratuitous, as it has nothing to do with the rest of the plot or his character development, I can see why it was included. Simply put: The analingus was amazing and then they fucked like bunnies! BIG, horny bunnies! I don't know how Ross 'took it'.

As I said earlier, there isn't an embarrassing performance in the entire cast. These previous four just stood out to me, which is saying a lot after 3 hours and 6 minutes of video!

Michael Lucas has also up'ed the production value ante with an exceptionally sharp costume design. With the possible exception of a mid-80's Chippendale number, I don't remember seeing men strip off their tuxedos for some hot sex. The apartments and spaces also reflect the affluence of the majority of the characters, as do the smartly chosen outdoor locations, particularly during the 'Nicole and Max go shopping' montage. (It was much more tastefully and successfully accomplished than my little description gives it credit for.) The videography is sort of a mixed bag, though. There are set ups that have ample coverage and competent editing. Then there are a couple moments of hand-held single camera work that sort of jarred me out of the visual smoothness I had become accustomed to.

Overall, Lucas has done a very credible and admirable job in adapting one of Fellini's MASTERPIECES(!!) into an epic adult feature. It would have been too easy to pick "Satyricon", or even "City of Women". However, he and co-director Tony Dimarco (who also wrote the screenplay) have accomplished an inspired piece of work.

NOTE: The review copy I received is the "Director's Special Edition" including a THIRD disc of bonus features, which I did not review. Frankly, after 3+ hours of the Fellini, followed by 3+ hours of Lucas, I was "La Dolce Vita'ed" OUT! ;) However, I would LOVED to have seen his R-Rated cut which premiered in New York! I think that would have been a GREAT addition to this deluxe set!

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Some Pig-ture

Though I intended to attend a preview of "Night in the Museum" in IMAX, the crowd was just so incredibly large and chaotic, with an average age of about 8 years old, I decided to wander down the hall for something else.

"Charlotte's Web" (dir. Gary Winick, US, 2006, 97 mins.) proved to be a charming (not cute! I HATE Cute!) and well produced version of the classic E.B. White story. Visually, it may owe a lot to the "Babe" films, however the web spinning sequences were beautifully done. Templeton's (the rat) sequences were also wonderfully executed. The cinematography, employing various second units for individual sequences, maintained a visual continuity and sense of realism, without turning the farms into fantasy lands. Danny Elfman's score is enchanting as always.

As far as the casting is concerned, Dakota Fanning is one of the most intelligent young actresses available, and she makes the most of her role, which is admittedly secondary to the animals. However, director Winick allows her subtle moments of growing up, which plays into the story's tale of passage. The vocal talent is loaded with stunt casting, for no obvious reason with only a couple of exceptions. Steve Buscemi is fabulous as Templeton (though I can still hear Paul Lynde from the 1973 animated version), and Thomas Haden Church and Andre' Benjamin are a hoot as a pair of crows, as is the inimitable John Cleese as the lead sheep. The rest of the cast is fairly non-descript, considering the names. Julia Roberts attempts to voice Charlotte with such realism that she is dull. The casting of Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, Robert Redford, Reba McIntire and Cedric the Entertainer as various other animals in the barn (and Sam Shepherd as the narrator?!) were vocally unrecognizable and didn't add anything to the characterizations beyond what we visually saw. I just did not understand why this cast was brought together, unless it was a matter of finding funding.

The editing is well paced and the continuity is fairly satisfactory, though there is some confusion as to how big Wilbur the pig is at times, as I am sure they must have used a dozen of them. The digital effects are fairly seamless and there is a point where I BELIEVED that Templeton was actually doing stunts! (I'm even referring to him as a 'real' character, as I could not discern between the rat and the CGI-Rat.) The finale is quite lovely, though the film attempts to extend the emotional climax of the original story by maintaining a melodramatic arc during the spider hatching and release scene, instead of allowing the mature resolution that the book has. But that is a minor quibble, considering the outstanding visuals during that moment.

Overall, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised! The face of Charlotte herself might be disconcerting to really young kids, however it is appropriate within the context of the story and film. Perhaps that is why Julia Roberts' vocalization is so dry, as to down play the scare factor of the visual? Well, I'm TRYING to give her a break here...!

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Cute, Cuter, Cutest... ugh

I'm catching up on some of the less than stellar screenings this past week or so...

"Colma: The Musical" (dir. Richard Wong, US, 2006, 119 mins.) is technically crafted with some beautiful takes, shots, edits and staged numbers. The incredible single take of the Rush Party was remarkably staged, as was a gorgeous waltz in the graveyard. It is, however, lacking editorial discipline and objectivity to the material. It is nearly a two-man film: Richard Wong (director, editor, cinematographer, producer) and H.P. Mendoza (star, screenplay, composer) have an obvious talent, but need to 'let go' of some of their material. I thought this clever little musical was about to end at the 80 minute mark. But then... It. Kept. Going. For another 40 minutes. It has a unique structure in which most of the musical numbers erupt from the characters' ennui regarding their lives in Colma, California, a nearly trivial suburb of San Francisco which boasts more cemetery plots than actual population. The characters have just graduated high school, which is stretching the credibility of the emotional plot lines they face, as well as the believability of the performances of the out-of-college cast. If it weren't for that detail about their ages, I would have been more convinced or at least committed to their predicaments. As it was, it played a bit like a multi-ethnic, middle-class suburban, musical version of "The O.C." This sounds a bit harsh, considering how much I did enjoy L.A. Renigen's performance as 'Maribel' as well as Jake Moreno's 'Billy'. Her monologues were fabulous. His singing was sweet and unaffected. H.P. Mendoza as 'Rodel', completes the trio, though as sort of a sidekick, who has an emotional arc that is barely enough to fill a subplot, yet is included for a sense of drama, or to fill out the character's purpose for being included in the first place. Of the three characters, it is 'Rodel' and 'Billy' who need some cutting. 'Billy's work, acting and his three girl friends (past, present, future) are one, if not two plot lines too many. The musical-within-the-musical is cute and clever in its take-off on such productions, yet it just adds TIME to what becomes a seemingly long film. That said, most of the musical numbers are clever, however there are a LOT of those, too. More than I can remember, which is not necessarily a good thing. But it is never embarrassing to watch and is, for the most part, cute.

"Miss Potter" (dir. Chris Noonan, UK/US, 2006, 92 mins.) is cuter, but at least shorter, though it didn't feel like it to me. Renee Zellweger plays 'Beatrix Potter' in this light bio-pic. It is as fluffy as the little bunnies she illustrates and writes about, which I guess is sort of the point. Even her romance with Ewan McGregor isn't produced with the melodramatic gusto I would have hoped for, though Zellweger and co-star Emily Watson give it their best shots. These three are supported by the queens and kings of the BBC, most notably Barbara Flynn as Beatrix's insufferable mother and Bill Paterson as her father. The production values recreating Edwardian England are LOVELY as are the recreations of Potter's illustrations. The gimmick here being that they come to life for Beatrix, which is cute in a very Disney-like way, though it doesn't adequately serve the actual subject matter regarding the subtle emancipation of a woman from the 'Jane Austen School for Girls' into her own person.

And finally, the CUTEST of them all (and you know I LOATHE CUTE!) is "The Holiday" (dir. Nancy Meyers, US, 2006, 138 mins.) Yes, that's right. 2 hours and 18 minutes of Cameron Diaz being C U T E. She is so self consciously C U T E, that she fails to achieve any chemistry with anyone she shares the screen with. Such a pity, since most of that screentime is shared with Jude Law, aka the Most Beautiful Man In Motion Pictures, aka the NEW Cary Grant. In fact, as I watched this thing slowly drag it's celluloid cuteness across the screen, I imagined that it was written for the 'new Cary Grant' and 'Katherine Hepburn', which Diaz most certainly is NOT. Catherine Keener might have been a better choice, though a bit of a tough physical match to Law, perhaps, but I digress. The ONLY way I was able to get through this thing WITHOUT walking out were the performances of Kate Winslet and Jack Black. They were put in the unenviable positions as the 'character-couple' versus the 'romantic couple' (Diaz-Law). I LONGED for the moments when Winslet and Black would break the monotony (ohmigod! One of the WORST slo-mo-prancing-around-the-manor montages EVER!) of the Diaz-Law plotline. Oh, yes, Cameron, you are the CUTEST one of all! I. LOATHE. CUTE.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

They're Making Your Dreams Come True

Let me begin with a full disclosure: I saw Michael Bennett's "Dreamgirls" on stage no less than 6 times. One of those times was on psychedelic mushrooms. I. Love. That. Production. So, with that prejudice, I EAGERLY shelled up the $25 for the San Francisco 'roadshow screening' of...

"Dreamgirls" (dir. Bill Condon, US, 2006, 131 mins.). Director Bill Condon obviously holds the original stage production in as high regard, if not nearly mythological awe, that those of us who were privileged enough to see it also do. He has maintained the awesome transitions that were 'magic' on stage (i.e. "Changing") and choreographer Fatima Robinson has recreated some of the trademark movement that Michael Bennett gave 'The Dreams'. Condon's screenplay adaptation is fiercely faithful to Tom Eyen's original book. You can almost feel the regret of some of the cutting of recitative, as the lyrics remain intact and are spoken. The few additional songs and scenes are seamlessly woven in, with one exception which is Deena's (Beyonce' Knowles) new showstopper, "Listen". It is a moment that belies the fact of Deena's less than stellar talent. However, emotionally it rings true within the story and is delivered by Beyonce' with star-studded gusto.

Condon did a superb casting job. Beyonce' Knowles has the almost unfortunate duty of performing 'Deena'. It is a very tricky role. 'Deena' has the largest character arc of all, however it is dramatically shadowed by the pyrotechnics of the rest of the characters surrounding her. Hers is the story of a surprising, yet steady climb to super stardom. On paper and on stage (I can't help referring to the comparison), 'Deena' is nearly omnipresent with the rest of the ensemble. However, as the character is cinematically edited, her presence is diminished, and the arc becomes nearly a fashion show. Beyonce' is gorgeous and stunning in some of the set pieces. However, I believe she may have been intimidated by the extreme fashion sense that is thrust upon the character to have maintained an emotional thru-line. Surprisingly, though, the role of 'Lorrell' as performed by Tony Winner Anika Noni Rose ("Caroline... or Change"), makes a similar transition with more success. It would have been interesting to see Anika Noni Rose play 'Deena', though the photogenic requirements might prohibit that on screen. Keith Robinson as 'C.C. White' is charming and appealing enough, though sadly some of his best music was cut.Jamie Foxx as the Faustian manager 'Curtis Taylor Jr.' handles his job with unobjectionable aplomb. However, he has ENORMOUS on-screen competition.

Jennifer Hudson claims the role of 'Effie' as her own. She manages one of the biggest numbers in musical theater, "I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going", without calling upon the ghost of Jennifer Holliday, whose rendition can be considered 'definitive.' Hudson attacks the role with a freshness and dramatic naivete' that being too young to have witnessed the original offers her. Hudson's 'Effie' is more than a diva, but a woman who lives with a single gift and does everything she can to protect it. Condon staged THE BIG NUMBER with a dramatic arc all its own. Hudson, perhaps without knowing it, channels within "I'm Telling You..." the great divas of the stage: it becomes Mama Rose's "Rose's Turn" in its ferocity. It is a stunning moment to watch her work that song and with nearly perfect diction, I might add!

Eddie Murphy, as 'James 'Thunder' Early', is the other scene stealing show stopper of the film. The role offers some huge moments for an entertainer with the stage and screen presence of Murphy. However, it is a dark and quiet single moment in the second act in which he NAILS the character! His aging transition is completely believable and the breakdown in Act Two is performed with an emotional logic that I have never understood until now.

Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are assured Award nominations and most likely, wins in the Supporting Categories.

Condon hedged his casting bets even further by hiring some real pros in the smaller ensemble roles, including Danny Glover, Hinton Battle, Sharon Leal, Bobby Slayton, and even Loretta Devine, who appeared in the original stage production.

The costuming is, as required, pretty freakin' awesome! The clothes work almost like intertitles, giving us nearly specific years as time passes. I would hazard to guess that there were 1,000's of pieces created for the principals and extras. It is nearly overwhelming. In fact, during 'Deena's' photo shoot, the sequence came PERILOUSLY CLOSE to the 'Gillian Girl Sequence' from "The Valley of the Dolls". It was a hair's breadth away from crossing that line. It could have been a single edit that saved that sequence from nose diving the entire production into "Valley of the Dolls" camp. Condon, or at least editor Virginia Katz, was very fortunate to have pulled off that sequence. The makeup and wigging do not come off as well, I'm afraid.

The cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler, theatrical lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher (the original lighting designers on Broadway) and production design and art direction by John Myhre and Tomas Voth all perfectly suit and enable the transition of period and success that surrounds the ensemble. Some of the production numbers are incredible to watch, without being overwhelming and distracting.

This being the 'roadshow screening', it attracted the truly devoted, i.e. ME! It was a sold out crowd at 10 p.m. The audience was almost frighteningly hyped as the film began, but then became so absorbed into it, that the screaming and hooting I feared would accompany the screening was replaced with appropriate and enthusiastic applause after THE BIG MOMENTS. As part of the 'roadshow', we were given a souvenir program, a limited edition litho of the poster and the entrance to the screening room had displays of a few of the costume pieces. Oh, and there is a nearly obnoxious t-shirt/poster/cd stall outside the door.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Fascist and the Faun

"Pan's Labyrinth" (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006, Mexico, 112 mins.) is one of the highest acclaimed films of the year, coming into awards season as an Oscar contender. The hype is deserved. Director del Toro has fashioned a self-described fairy tale, which to me, played out as a horror story involving the psychic damage incurred by a little girl under the strain of her evil (UNDERSTATEMENT HERE!) fascist step-father. She, Ivana Baquero as 'Ofelia', withstands the tests of both worlds she finds herself trapped in. He, Sergi Lopez as 'Captain Vidal', is basically a psychopath in General Franco's army, who undergoes one of the most hideous physical manifestations on film in recent memory. (The audience cringed, gasped and groaned for nearly 3 minutes of abject horror during 'that scene'!) Del Toro pulls NO punches in his screenplay or his visuals. I found the climax to be nearly shocking.

The film reminded me of the nightmares that Polanski or Pasolini have put on film, in their reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime. "Pan's Labyrinth" is set in Spain in 1944, after Franco's victory, though there is still an active resistance at work. Oddly enough, Ofelia's fantasies (involving some fairies and an ambivalent faun, though the English translation would refer to him as 'Pan' in the title) are strongest before the realities become their most violent. It is as if she is faced with choosing between her two worlds as her step-father grows ever more dangerous, and she is pulled into the reality of the situation after having found her strength in her fantasies. The climax traps her between both worlds where she must make her final decision.

"Pan's Labyrinth" appears to be simply constructed, though it is deceptively dense in in its visual and literal homages and metaphors. Del Toro was present at tonight's screening, and during his Q&A touched upon the visual mythology that he quite liberally borrowed throughout the film. There were a couple of instances that I had picked up on (i.e., Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz), however as he continued to list his quotes, it became obvious that the film is a jigsaw puzzle of children's stories and pagan mythology. It would be easy enough to see the film once and appreciate it for its surface level of Brothers Grimm-like story telling. It is also a film that would bear repeated viewings to pick up on the nearly subliminal details that del Toro includes to express his personal demons as well as those of the character 'Ofelia'. In that way, he created a work of art that can be admired for its moral simplicity as well as studied for its textual and visual complexity.

During the Q&A, moderated by SF Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat and featuring the typically annoying audience fawning and self-congratulatory analysis, del Toro was able to take control of the comments and entertain as well as enlighten us with his unusual profane, yet deeply astute replies. The man quoted Kierkegaard in one instant after having described his adolescent masturbatory habits behind the alter in the church he grew up in. He was absolutely fascinating to listen to!

The only hesitation I can admit to is that the dialogue is fairly busy, which because it is in Spanish with English subtitles, the subtitling was almost distracting against his visuals, which may be another reason to view it again - to concentrate on the outstanding production design and cinematography and try to ignore the subtitles.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Of Buddhas and Emperors

Let me get this first annoying little documentary out of the way before launching into something SPECTACULAR!

"Words of My Perfect Teacher" (dir. Lesley Ann Patten, Canada, 2003, 103 mins.) is "an irreverent portrait of Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche", who is the third in line from the Dalai Lama. Director Patten set out to do a bio-pic on him, but she admittedly gets distracted by his teachings and erratic behavior to turn the film into a meditative Buddhist lesson for herself. This is confusing and diffusing of all the subject matter involved here. Not only do we NOT get to really know Rinpoche, but the 100 minutes is HARDLY enough time to reflect on what Patten believes he is trying to teach her, not to mention the profiles of the other teachers (Steven Seagal?!) within this little film. It has taken three years for it to acquire distribution, and even though the filmmaker might suggest that it is part of its karmic journey, I would suggest that if she had taken a clearer and more precise point of view, it would have been a much more successful project. As it is, it is quite self indulgent as she is the narrator and incidental 'star' of the film. Instead of learning more about Rinpoche, or his teachings or the state of 20th century Buddhist prophets, we are left with Patten quizzing herself about why she is unable to get a focus on the project to begin with. I found it terribly frustrating to watch her, watch herself, watching him. Now, on to something EASIER to watch...

"Curse of the Golden Flower" (dir. Yimou Zhang, Hong Kong, 2006, 120 mins.) Oh. My. GOD! Yimou Zhang ("Hero" "House of Flying Daggers" etc.) has completely outdone himself here. The production design is so big, so MASSIVE, so blindingly intense, that it can actually become nauseating at one point. Zhang's use of color has always been fascinating and glorious. In "...Golden Flower", his use of color is so overwhelming that the performances and staging are forced up a notch into melodrama to compete against it. Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li play out a drama similar to "Lion In Winter", with three sons as pawns in their ploys for revenge and power during the Tang Dynasty in the 10th Century. Gong Li is incredible, considering the competition she has from the scenic and costume design. In fact, in the oddest way, she was reminding me of Meryl Streep in her technique and expressions. Chow Yun Fat survives his scenes on mere presence and never overcomes the elaborate costuming and armory he is dressed in. The three sons are caught in the melodrama and are perfectibly serviceable performances, but it is Gong Li that steals every scene she is in, which is saying a LOT considering...

The Production Design! Zhang takes Peking Opera to Ken Russell extremes and then throws in some Peter Jackson-like battle spectacle, creating a mind blowing fantasia of images! I spent most of the first 20 minutes gasping! And the last 20 minutes in AWE! The final battle is just out-freaking-rageous! However, the time between just got a bit... old. The reds, pinks and golds were swirling all over the place. The noise of the timekeepers in the palace and the protocol officers announcements put a surreal and not entirely pleasant edge to the proceedings. However Zhang may have been aware of this in his editing and pacing as all the spectacle would be balanced out by a stunning close-up of Gong Li. In the midst of this technicolor circus of chaos, her simplicity and solid technique anchored me back into the plot. It is in the running for some Foreign Language Film awards, and though the production elements make it deserving, it is so visually dense that the emotional heart of the the script suffers a bit. However, it MUST win for Costume Design! IT. MUST!

(On a somewhat side note, Ms. Ruthe Stein, of the S.F. Chronicle, made quite the restless spectacle of herself throughout the press screening I attended. You know it's pretty bad when you're being 'shush'ed' in a house of only 20! I will be sending an open-letter to her editor and post it here, later.)

P.S.: I just got home from the San Francisco Film Society's Annual Poster Sale (Member's preview)! The volunteers were doing a pretty good job, under the typically terrific supervision of Alex Ruhmann and Ben Friedland, who did NOT strong arm me into purchasing the half dozen or so items I walked out of there with. (It's a softer sell after you upgrade to the "Film Connoisseur" level.) There was a VERY tempting "Spider" autographed by David Cronenberg that I let get away...

I'll see 'em again tomorrow at "Pan's Labyrinth"...!

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