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Blu-ray Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s moving yet disappointingly cautious mind-bender is accorded a robustly beautiful transfer and surprisingly thoughtful supplements.

4.5

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Arrival

Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker torn between the figurative and the literal, who’s drawn to emotional subjects (frequently the death of children) which he dramatizes with a mathematical painter’s eye. There’s poetry in his films, far more than one’s accustomed to finding in mainstream American cinema, but this poetry is often corralled to serve a pat purpose. One senses Villeneuve’s consciousness of this constraining tendency and his eagerness to break free of it, such as in Enemy, which strives to be free-wheeling and hallucinatory, achieving these qualities only in fussy dribs and drabs. It’s logical in this context, then, that Villeneuve would make a film featuring an artist-type and a rationalist, as they embody the dueling tendencies of his sensibility.

Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” Arrival is about Earth’s first encounter with extraterrestrials. At the beginning of the film, 12 half-spherical metal crafts—which suggest the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey if it were shaped like a skinny egg—hover above major countries, inviting us to discern their intentions. The narrative is set on the American site of contact in Montana, where the United States military has recruited Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, to decode sounds that could be alien speech. A telling bit of dialogue encapsulates how Louise and Ian respectively approach this mind-bending opportunity: Louise claims that language, which is somewhat open to interpretation, is the foundation of civilization, while Ian counters that society owes its existence to theoretically more concrete science. With this contrast between intuition and rationalism established, Louise and Ian venture into a great unknown oft plumbed by science fiction and horror films.

Of course, aliens have been visiting Earth in the movies nearly since the inception of cinema, and mediocre filmmakers, viewing tropes merely as tropes, often forget to evoke the unimaginable awesomeness and terror of actual alien contact. By exhilarating contrast, Villeneuve painstakingly communicates the aliens’ alien-ness. Louise and Ian’s first exposure to the spaceship isn’t tossed off as an inciting incident, but used as fodder for a set piece that suggests a merging of Steven Spielberg’s sense of wonder and Stanley Kubrick’s propensity for sinister visual symmetry.

Louise and Ian’s ascension into the spaceship, where they will speak with the aliens, involves an intoxicatingly immersive procedure that allows audiences to grasp, step by step, the characters’ transition from the realm of the mundane to that of the fantastic. Obsessive tracking shots follow a lift that bridges the distance from the ground to the entrance of the craft, which opens every 18 hours when the aliens are ready to convene. (This meeting time is signaled, in the military camp, by an ominous, pulsating horn that’s reminiscent of the blaring sound effects from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)

Louise and Ian enter the ship, lose gravity, and proceed to stroll straight up a bare, surreally vertical passageway that suggests a hallway in a chic museum. Eventually they reach the aliens, who live in a tank of fog and resemble giant, standing squid and sound, poignantly, like whales. It takes only a few of these visits for the wounded, empathetic Louise to broker a huge discovery: that the aliens have a written language, expressed by ink that shoots out of their tendrils, forming floating shapes suggestive of circular Rorschach ink blots.

These details are irresistible, as Arrival’s unusually interested in the process of communication—at least for a while. For instance, while Louise is using English as the bedrock of her negotiation with the aliens, the Chinese are utilizing the symbols of Mahjong, a competitive game that colors their dialogues with a degree of conflict that’s inherent in the chosen symbology, paralleling a test that Louise proffers to the American military at the beginning of the film. She tells the military to evaluate her rival for this job by asking him for the Sanskrit word for war. The rival produces a word that Louise interprets, presumably more truthfully, as a desire to trade cows. The point is that language shapes our conception of reality and vice versa. (One recalls a plot driving George Orwell’s 1984, in which a hunger for freedom is to be destroyed by obliterating the word itself.)

Louise may have an artist’s comfort with intuition, but she’s also a lonely academic locked in a prison of intellectuality, analyzing life to death from a distance (as Ian says, she’s more of a mathematician than she might care to admit). Louise yearns for transcendence, which she correctly discerns as a point of commonality with the aliens she observes. And what the aliens offer Louise and humankind at large is a revolutionary circular language which ushers forth a reality of simultaneity, free of distinctions of past, present, and future. At a stage in her life, Louise lost a daughter to a rare disease, a tragedy which Villeneuve visualizes in woozy, rueful shards of imagery that evoke The Tree of Life. At the film’s climax, we realize that the heartbreak of Louise’s family isn’t in her past, but her now visible future, and she plunges into it anyway, understanding something that’s often tough for highly rational introverts to grasp: that ecstasy is impossible without loss.

As staged by Villeneuve and acted by Adams and Renner, this is all quite moving—so moving, in fact, that it might take one a little while to discern that Arrival has neatly wedded the pacifist message of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still with the three-hanky bombast of any melodrama with a dead child or alienated professional at its center. For all of the film’s considerable craftsmanship, one keeps tripping on the pop-cultural derivations and signposts. At times, Villeneuve suggests M. Night Shyamalan without the neurosis and self-consciousness.

Abandoned somewhere in Arrival’s third act is the interest in language as the fabric of our reality, as the catalyst for the blossoming of Louise’s new existence as she becomes a woman without time, a potential new Billy Pilgrim. The film ends just as it’s revving up, then, evading the formidable formalist challenge of breaking the barriers of beginnings and endings, causes and effects. Louise may find freedom, or a new prison, but the ramifications of that freedom are unimagined as anything other than a superficially uplifting punchline. Villeneuve is a near-visionary who can’t break free of formula.

Image/Sound

The image’s blacks and browns are rich and varied, and the silvery autumnal tones that dominate Arrival are sharp. Details are appropriately subtle for a film that’s so occupied with tactile textures. Minute facial specifics are detectable (one can make out the nearly colorless hair high on characters’ cheeks), and grace notes abound, such as the interplay of the various shades of white light in the alien fog. The soundtracks, particularly the English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, offer plenty of requisite genre-movie bombast (like the bass-y approach of the spaceships) while preserving the fragile intricacy of the flutes and wood instruments that bolster the sonic bridging and rhyming of the score and sound editing. A gorgeous and attentive transfer.

Extras

The extras here are strikingly sincere, offering an earnest portrait of gifted artists seeking to carve out their own niche in the speculative science-fiction genre. Five featurettes cover a variety of topics: the film’s inception, the sound design, the score, the editing, and a brief overview of the principles of time, memory, and language that drive the narrative. There are particularly choice bits with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson recording and manipulating choral voices, while claiming that he wanted to use vocals in the score to bridge the music with the film’s thematic emphasis on communication. The editor, Joe Walker, discusses the film’s tricky editing rhythms, particularly the honing required to coherently land that third-act twist. Ted Chiang, the author of Arrival’s source material, “The Story of Your Life,” discusses the concept of linearity, and the idea that the past, present, and future all already exist. Correspondingly, Chiang discusses the impetus of his story and his drive to explore the question of what a human would do if they knew their future and couldn’t change it due to the potential laws of physics. (This is a nuance that’s regrettably marginalized in Arrival, which implies that the heroine’s refusal to alter her life is a conscious, life-affirming act of bravery.) Like everyone else interviewed here, Chiang is passionate and erudite, offering thoughts that expand our understanding of the intentions driving Arrival.

Overall

Denis Villeneuve’s moving yet disappointingly cautious mind-bender is accorded a robustly beautiful transfer and surprisingly thoughtful supplements.

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Jadyn Malone Director: Denis Villeneuve Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Release Date: February 14, 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

4

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on the Criterion Collection

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

5

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Detour

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective.

In this context, Detour’s tricky narrative resembles an auto-critical study of how to put a scheme over with no money. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is an aspiring musician hitchhiking from New York City to Los Angeles to see Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him to try to break into movies. In the sort of observational flourish that’s typical of Ulmer’s films, we see Al playing a piano in an empty bar, with stacked chairs in front of him in the foreground that lend compositional dynamism to the image while casually illustrating his sense of rejection. To put it bluntly, Al may always be relegated to playing after hours rather than primetime, and Sue wants to enter the center ring. Both characters are stunted artists hamstrung by a lack of resources. In the tradition of disenfranchised men in film noir, Al gets into trouble.

Detour opens on Al at a diner, tellingly arguing with a customer over a selection on the jukebox after the film’s main events have already occurred. A shadow creeps over Al, enclosing his face in darkness as he begins to narrate for us, describing how he wound up as a drifter. Ulmer and screenwriter Martin Goldsmith never allow the audience to forget that Al’s telling the story, as he’s almost certainly an unreliable narrator. Al recalls being picked up off the side of the road by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who throws his money around before dying in circumstances so absurd as to lead us to suspect that Al is either hiding something or outright lying. After Haskell dies, Al, in a masterpiece of convenient rationalization, decides that robbing Haskell makes sense, as no one will believe that he didn’t kill the man anyway.

Driving Haskell’s car, wearing the man’s clothes and spending his money, Al gives a ride to Vera (Ann Savage), who’s hitchhiking near a gas station. In another twist so ludicrous that we doubt the veracity of Al’s story, Vera immediately discerns that Al isn’t Haskell, claiming to have recently ridden and fought with him—a development that’s foreshadowed earlier by the scratches on Haskell’s hand. Vera and Al are soon trying to sell Haskell’s car, becoming bound by desperation and sexual tension, as Vera reveals herself to be a formidable, bitter, and merciless opponent. Savage gives the film a jolt of hothouse energy, her curt, pragmatic ferocity serving as a counterpoint for Neal’s commanding recessive-ness.

Detour’s lean 69-minute running time also suggests simplification wrought by economics. Ulmer never resolves the mystery of Al’s trustworthiness, and another death, even less likely than Haskell’s, exacerbates the impression that Al’s attempting to kill his way out of a thicket of escalating crises. The audience is watching either the story of a delusional or unrepentant killer or of a man so profoundly unlucky he might earn words of sympathy from Job. This ambiguity amplifies the tension that’s been created and sustained by Ulmer’s raw yet beautiful style, while complicating the self-pity that often drives crime films.

Detour also pointedly lacks a third act, leaving Al drifting in the narrative ether. Vera tries to blackmail Al into helping her with the sort of conspiracy that drives many noirs, but this development is brutally curtailed, as is Al’s quest to find Sue. The film eats itself alive before the viewer’s eyes, post-modernly reflecting its hero’s doom, which functions as a heightened symbol for the ordinary disappointments of real life. Detour’s struggle to exist mirrors our efforts to do the same, and the film has an aversion to bullshit that’s livelier and more suggestive than anything in most contemporary cinema.

Image/Sound

This new 4K restoration, the result of over a decade of research, is awesomely pristine, rich, and detailed. To those who first came to Detour through subpar VHS editions and online streams and have come to associate it with a lurid crumminess that suggests the film equivalent of a beat-up E.C. comic, the transfer will likely look and sound too beautiful. But one quickly adjusts, as this Criterion edition honors Ulmer’s artistry, emphasizing the beauty he conjured even with a few thousand dollars and a week-long shooting schedule. Close-ups are vivid, revealing people’s wrinkles and creases, and clothing textures are shown to be pivotal illustrations of character. Above all, there’s a silkiness to the image, a velvety sheen that honors its aesthetic virtuosity. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gracefully oscillates between the various sounds of the road and diners and hotels, offering a subtle aural portrait of down-and-out life that contrasts with the dynamic mythmaking of the score. The hisses and pops of prior editions are gone, and so the film sounds as great as it looks.

Extras

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a feature-length 2004 documentary, and a new interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins, cover overlapping ground but are each worthwhile. Both supplements discuss Ulmer’s background as an immigrant from the Czech Republic—though he, like many directors in America who hailed from that part of Europe, claimed to be from the more cosmopolitan Vienna—as well as Ulmer’s early working relationships with legends like F.W. Murnau and legends in the making like Billy Wilder. And both pieces attempt to explain how Ulmer, an intelligent, talented, and cultivated man, failed to achieve the recognition that was enjoyed by, say, Wilder. (Ulmer’s stunning The Black Cat figures into each account.)

The Man Off-Screen offers an appealingly wandering account of Ulmer’s life, with guests like Joe Dante, John Landis, and collaborator Ann Savage celebrating the filmmaker’s inventiveness. Meanwhile, Isenberg offers a concise examination of Ulmer’s aesthetic, suggesting that the filmmaker’s unsatisfied quest for mainstream success benefitted his art. Robert Polito’s essay, included with this disc’s accompanying booklet, examines the creation of Detour with exhilarating precision, while contextualizing the film within the crime genre at large, on the screen as well as on the page. The theatrical trailer and a supplement detailing the origin of Criterion’s extraordinary restoration round out a slim but nourishing package.

Overall

This unbelievably beautiful restoration is a triumph of preservation as well as a poignant testament to the talent of an obscure artist too often taken for granted.

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Pat Gleason Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Screenwriter: Martin Goldsmith Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 69 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

The film is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation.

4

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Perfect Blue

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a prescient vision of a modern world defined by media oversaturation and social media validation. In the film, Mimi (Junko Iwao), a J-pop girl-group singer who decides to give up music for acting, finds herself targeted by a stalker who threatens to ruin her if she doesn’t return to her old gig. More than just a stalker thriller, however, Perfect Blue unfolds as an extended study of Mimi’s fraying mental health as she begins to question her own identity as more and more crimes happen around her, with evidence pegging her as a suspect.

One avenue in which Mimi’s sense of self is undermined is, of course, the internet. Early on in Perfect Blue, she’s pointed to a website where she supposedly keeps a diary for her fans. Yet Mimi, who can barely even operate a computer, didn’t write the site’s entries, and she panics over the false confessions being posted on the web under her name. In the film, the internet is amusingly shown in its early days; URLs are absurdly long jumbles of letters and numbers, and sites are mostly text-based with maybe a background image added for flavor. Even here, however, the power of the web to enable false identities to propagate and be taken as legitimate is shown to be considerable, and Mimi is helpless to counter the lies put out by whomever has control of “her” site.

Resentment of Mimi’s abandonment of pop drives Perfect Blue’s violence, which befalls those helping the star’s pivot to acting. Kon’s depiction of violence is brutal, delivering a lot of ripped flesh and gushing blood. At one point, a photographer is stabbed in the eye with a screwdriver, while the climactic confrontation ends with so much blood that it seeps out of the victim’s body in a thick wall of sludge. Kon is circumspect only when it comes to the true source of the film’s crimes—obscuring, misdirecting, and withholding the identity of the killer at almost every turn. Throughout, we only see the murderer’s hands wielding weapons, and no clues are offered by the blurred, scrambled perspectives of the dying victims.

Kon also uses this disjointed perspective to illustrate how Mimi’s sense of self slips away from her, not only from the paranoia mounting around her, but also from the regular degradations that the entertainment industry foists on her. Having left the world of pop and its machinations behind her, Mimi finds herself now at the hands of the masculine world of film. Her aspirations to be a serious actress lead her to taking the role of a rape victim in a production called Double Blind, and soon she’s suffering through uncomfortable scenes where she feels violated by the aggressiveness of the film’s scenarios. (She also gets booked with shocking speed for a nude photo shoot to emphasize she’s no longer a “good girl.”)

Much of Perfect Blue’s turmoil comes not from Mimi struggling to clear her name of murder accusations, but from her attempt to control her own narrative, to put forward an image that isn’t co-opted, as much by the killer as the normal power players in show business. Her inability to decide what kind of person she wants to be is as disturbing as the bloodletting that occurs all around her, and is one facet of what’s allowed Perfect Blue to endure as a masterful articulation of powerlessness in the age of media saturation.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s release of Perfect Blue comes with a remastered presentation of the film, and comparing it to the old, standard-def version (also included here) reveals that the new transfer boasts richer color depth and sharper contrast. Yet the integrity of Satoshi Kon’s most minute aesthetic choices, like the way the grimy backgrounds and deliberately fuzzy line details contribute to the film’s hallucinatory edge, have not been compromised. The surround sound remix for both the English and Japanese language tracks ably distribute the dissonant sounds of violence (glass shattering, blood spurting) and Masahiro Ikuni’s score of unnerving drones and frenetic breakbeat production across the channels into a suffocating cacophony.

Extras

The most substantial feature included here is a 40-minute lecture on the film given by Kon himself, and in which he offers his interpretation of the material and insights into his filming process. Elsewhere, there are brief interviews with both the Japanese- and English-language cast in which they give their thoughts on the film, and both a recording session and ad hoc music video for the “Angel of Your Heart” song that plays during the photographer’s murder.

Overall

Perfect Blue looks excellent on Shout’s disc, though it retains the grimy, slightly indefinite features that contribute the film’s brilliant depiction of blurred reality and illusion.

Cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Ōkura, Yōsuke Akimoto Director: Satoshi Kon Screenwriter: Sadayuki Murai Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 81 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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