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Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

4.0

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A Dry White Season

The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.

Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.

The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.

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In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.

Extras

A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.

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Overall

This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Arrow Video’s Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance receives a significant packaging upgrade from Arrow Video.

4.5

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Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.

Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.

Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.

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So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.

Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.

Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.

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Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.

In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.

Image/Sound

This Blu-ray edition’s hardback book indicates that the transfer was “made available by NBC Universal.” Indeed, there are no appreciable differences between this transfer and the one on Universal’s 2016 home-video edition of the film. Only a few instances of noise exist in the darkest shots, but otherwise this remains a crisp transfer. The 7.1 and X lossless audio tracks are likewise pristine, perfectly balancing the film’s exacting sound design—so rich in creaks and ghostly whispers—relative to Fernando Vélasquez’s tense but mournful score.

Extras

Arrow Video has ported over all of the features from Universal’s original release, which contained mostly brief EPK documentaries and one of Guillermo del Toro’s indispensable audio commentaries. Arrow supplements these extras with some new—and meatier—goodies, chief among them “The House Is Alive,” a 50-minute documentary that dives deep into the film’s intricate production design and literary inspirations. Del Toro also contributes a new interview, while two new critical pieces are included. One is an interview with critic Kim Newman, who places the film in the broader context of gothic romance, the other a video essay by Kat Ellinger on del Toro’s entire filmography and Crimson Peak’s place within it. Arrow’s lavish packaging also includes production stills and a booklet with an interview with del Toro and critical essays by David Jenkins, Simon Abrams, and Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Overall

A slew of excellent new features ensures that this is, for now at least, the definitive home-video edition of Guillermo del Toro’s elegant haunted-house film.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique

This dynamic and balanced restoration makes a significant case for the film as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

4.5

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Panique

Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.

The outcast is Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, in casting that recalls Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. In both films, Simon plays a frumpy, lonely, and artistic man stuck in his own head, who falls for a beautiful woman who exploits his affections with the encouragement of her true lover. Renoir allows us to understand from the outset that Simon’s character is trapped, by his self-loathing as much as by his manipulators, while Duvivier offers a panorama that gradually closes in on Hire. In fact, one of the driving pleasures of Panique’s first act is in attempting to discern where it’s going, as Duvivier studies the respective habits of a baker, a prostitute, a shifty young man, a hypocritical accountant, and so forth. The film’s foreboding emphasis on daily life sometimes suggests The Marseille Trilogy by way of Shirley Jackson.

Hire initially appears confident, accepting his status in this picturesque country as the resident weirdo. After resisting the butcher’s attempts to talk with him, Hire orders a bloody pork loin and proceeds to the cheese shop to search for its “ripest” Camembert. Such details, which are plentiful in Panique, are amusing for their own sake while revealing that Hire fashions himself a ghoulish aesthete who’s somewhat difficult for the sake of being difficult. (The emphases on blood and ripeness also suggest a rechanneling of thwarted sexual hungers.) Unlike the immediately pitiable hero of La Chienne, Hire allows the audience to enjoy his loneliness. Perhaps this is a man who’s figured out how to live apart from society with dignity intact. In other words, Hire, who possesses the gifts of Simon’s own inherently introverted magnetism, flatters similarly-minded people in the audience.

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This narrative misdirection mirrors Hire’s fooling of himself, underscoring how he’s attempted to transcend his human need for companionship—a nuance that renders his fall from grace all the more moving. As Hire becomes intoxicated with Alice (Viviane Romance), Simon’s physicality becomes subtly heavier and more awkward, as the actor understands Hire to be reverting to a vulnerable state that’s been long suppressed. Duvivier’s compositions complement this notion, particularly when Hire is framed in his cluttered apartment, regarding Alice’s residence from below as carnival lights luridly illuminate him. The carnival isn’t only a metaphor for the “show business”—the manipulations, the play-acting—that govern everyday life, but for how society always requires freaks for projection and ostracizing.

A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII, which is helpfully illuminated in the essays in the booklet included with this disc. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that Panique now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Hire ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic.

Image/Sound

The image has a few minor blemishes but is generally quite sharp and rich in tactile detail. Throughout the film, this superb clarity particularly emphasizes the relationship between the various foregrounds and backgrounds of the frames, underscoring the vitality of tracking shots that elaborate on the various connections between the characters, emphasizing how small this troubled community really is. Blacks are rich, and whites are delicately soft, the latter of which is important in rendering characters’ flesh, particularly in the surprisingly erotic images of a woman teasing her male voyeur with glimpses of her body. The monaural soundtrack expertly preserves the film’s intricate soundstage, which often pivots on a contrast between the sounds of everyday work (carpentry and butchery) and those of the carnival, which physicalize the lurid thoughts driving the narrative’s action.

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Extras

“The Art of Subtitling,” a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day challenges of translating foreign dialogue into English text. Like a lot of things many of us take for granted, subtitling requires an exactitude and discipline that’s invisible at first glance. For instance, a subtitle must disappear before one image segues into another, so as to not jar the audience. And, for the sake of flow, subtitles must also summarize dialogue rather than literally transcribe it, so that an audience doesn’t spend a film’s entire running time reading. Goldstein also examines the process of updating and improving subtitle tracks over the years as films are restored, including the production of the new track of Panique that was commissioned for this release, as modern audiences have grown to crave a precise rendering of the slang and humor that give characters and narratives texture.

A new interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of legendary Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, offers an inside look at how Julien Duvivier altered one of his father’s novels to arrive at the screenplay for Panique, while providing a short overview of Georges’s life, particularly during WWI and WWII. (Georges wasn’t especially fond of the many films made from his work, though Pierre has high praise for Panique.) Meanwhile, a conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot succinctly covers a variety of topics, especially the rocky reception that Duvivier received when he returned to France after working in the United States so as to dodge the Nazi occupation. French audiences, somewhat understandably, were resistant to a critique of mob justice from someone who managed to avoid the danger and turmoil of the mob altogether. The essays by film scholar James Quandt and Duvivier expert Lenny Borger also discuss the political context of Panique, while reveling in the film’s brilliant melding of realist and expressionist textures. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but informative supplements package.

Overall

With this dynamic and balanced restoration, Criterion makes a significant case for Panique as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

Cast: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Louis Florencie, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Brian De Palma’s Obsession

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade from Shout! Factory.

4

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Obsession

Geneviève Bujold was a little bit like the Björk of late-‘60s, early-‘70s cinema. She worked between predominately pop-minded American films and hermetic, aggressively Euro productions, coasted a long way on adorably pliable looks, and kept you perpetually off-balance with her off-kilter line readings and interpretations. She was a sterile cuckoo with a voice whose grit confirmed the darkness in her eyes. Paul Schrader may have ended up having to capitulate Obsession’s original (ridiculous) scripted ending to the will of Brian De Palma, but the casting of Bujold in what is essentially Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo results in a literary emphasis not seen in De Palma’s work again until the strong-arm showboating of Oliver Stone and David Mamet.

Obsession is, as far as De Palma’s tributes to Hitchcock go, half-baked and far-fetched without even the benefit of being audacious-unto-tasteless. It’s the film in which the only dearth of a metaphoric “double” is the comedy mask that ought to complement the dour visage of tragedy. (Is that the reason that it’s Obsession, and not any other De Palma film up until Femme Fatale, that’s included in the top 1,000 film list of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who sneered at the director for delighting in audience reactions to Dressed to Kill?)

While Bernard Herrmann’s rapturously funereal score (with at least four separate dirge leitmotifs swirling around the opulent, central “Valse Lente”) ratchets up Obsession’s metastasized, polluted doom-gloom, Bujold takes her role in the opposite direction, at least initially. (The character is a screenwriter’s “pitch” if there ever was one—e.g., “What if we took the idea that Kim Novak was practically young enough to be James Stewart’s daughter and just ran with that?”) Within minutes of meeting Cliff Robertson’s sad sack Michael, Bujold’s Elizabeth bites heartily into Schrader’s symbolic dialogue about the ethical implications of discovering an original draft of art and restoring the revision.

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That’s clearly an expression of self-deprecating guilt from a writer who felt a little dirty turning Vertigo into a teary-eyed sick joke. But Bujold’s enthusiasm as a performer redeems the entire picture, especially when she’s asked to perform flashback scenes that shouldn’t work, but, thanks to her, represent another of De Palma’s fearlessly experimental whims.

Image/Sound

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography has looked too washed-out on previous home-video editions of the film, but it finally looks right on Shout’s Blu-ray. Colors are natural and the exaggerated lighting dazzles when refracted off of mirror surfaces. Even more impressive is the surround-sound remix, which amplifies Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic, swelling score to deafening levels while leaving all dialogue clear in the center channel. The original mono track is also included and sounds every bit as crisp despite the lack of separation.

Extras

On his commentary track, Douglas Keesey offers a drily academic breakdown of the film. The author of Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film sounds too much like he’s reading from a script, but he still provides intriguing observations on the director’s stylistic flourishes. Interviews with producer George Litto and editor Paul Hirsch see both men reminiscing about their careers and work with De Palma, with the former more gregarious about his own life and the latter more specific about the details of his work on Obsession. An archival documentary on the film features interviews with De Palma, Cliff Robertson, and Geneviève Bujold, who all reflect on the film’s production and how well they worked together. The disc also includes a trailer, radio spots, and an image gallery.

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Overall

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade, highlighting the dreamy haze of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s score better than any home-video release of the film to date.

Cast: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara, Stanley J. Reyes, Nick Kreiger, Stocker Fontelieu Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Paul Schrader Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 1976 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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