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So Many Good Movies to Stream!

George Wolf George Wolf So Many Good Movies to Stream!Mank - Photo via IMDb
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Holy cow there are a lot of viewing options this weekend! Netflix, Shudder, Amazon Prime, VOD, and both Wexner Center and Gateway Film Center virtual screening rooms are loaded. Here are the highlights.

Mank

On Netflix

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’ masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Grade: A

Black Bear

Streaming

by George Wolf

As slippery as it is inviting, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is an intoxicating trip through the inspirations and indulgences that take root in creative minds.

It feels intensely personal, and yet – once Levine delivers his midstream shape shift – malleable enough to bend to myriad perspectives and interpretations.

We first meet Allison (Aubrey Plaza) as an actress and director facing a crisis of inspiration. She’s hoping to ignite the creative spark at a remote lakeside property overseen by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon).

As the three get to know each other, we learn that Gabe inherited the property from his family. Beyond that, there isn’t much Blair and Gabe seem to agree on. The couple’s little barbs become more intense, as does the attraction between Allison and Gabe, and we think we have a pretty good handle on what’s soon to be up.

And then we don’t.

The opening scene repeats, but Allison and Blair are co-stars on the set of the new film directed by Gabe, who is also married to Allison. The shoot is chaotic, Gabe’s motivational methods are questionable and now Allison is the one jealous of Gabe and Blair’s cozy relationship.

Knowing that Levine’s own history includes films with his wife (actress/director Sophia Takal) adds a layer of intimate intrigue, and knowing even a little about the workings of a movie set will add relatable humor.

But Black Bear isn’t a comedy – except when it’s funny. It’s also dramatic and slightly horrific, depending on your viewpoint.

Most of all, it’s emotional, propelled by career high performances from Abbott, Gadon and Plaza. The glee each performer takes in upending character expectations is evident, with Plaza seamlessly moving from a cool, casual customer to the emotionally frayed flashpoint of a volatile triangle.

After such fireworks play out, Levine’s payoff may seem a bit underwhelming, but his film is more about the trail than where it ends. Black Bear‘s got plenty to say – about creativity, ego, insecurity, sexual politics and more – but its resonance comes from not demanding you take a side.

Grade: A-

Dear Santa

by Rachel Willis

Director Dana Nachman’s feature documentary, Dear Santa, is delightful.

Highlighting the 100-year-old United States Postal Service program, Operation Santa, the film captures the spirit of the season as ‘adopter elves’ make Christmas special for children and families across the U.S.

When children post their letters to Santa every year, USPS makes those letters – hundreds of thousands of them – available to the public to ‘adopt.’ This is a chance for individuals, families, schools, and non-profit organizations to read through the letters, select one (or several), and do what they can to fulfill the wishes of the children penning them.

Starting three weeks from Christmas and working forward to the big day, we see how the letters move through the system – starting with the children writing them, to their delivery to the postal service, then on to the adopter elves. Two locations in the US – Chicago and New York – allow the adopters to physically read through the letters, while the rest are available online for those around the country who want to participate.

Nachman (Pick of the Litter) interviews several ‘elves’ in the postal service who work with Santa to read, sort, and deliver the letters received every year. She also follows several adopter elves who help Santa distribute gifts to ‘nice’ children across the country. Then, there are the children themselves, so eager to have their deepest wants and desires met by Santa. One child is particularly keen on receiving a moose for Christmas.

Interspersed throughout is a highlight reel of kids of all ages talking about Santa, who he is, what he does, where he lives, and it’s charming to watch the children explain what makes Santa so special.

This is a family-oriented treat, with the filmmakers and ‘elves’ doing their best to keep the Santa myth alive for any believers. However, older kids who might be starting to question whether the man with the bag is ‘real,’ might see through the illusion. Some of those interviewed are more convincing than others when it comes to their work with Santa.

The film is an ode to the United States Postal Service, the hard work they do each year to make Operation Santa a success, as well as to the adopters who make it possible for children to have the merriest of Christmases.

If you’re feeling Grinchy this Christmas, Dear Santa might be just what you need to remember what makes the season so special.

Grade: A-

Minor Premise

On Gateway Film Center Virtual Screening and VOD

by George Wolf

“Don’t make me psychotic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychotic.”

Okay, that’s not the exact quote, but science fiction and horror stories have been mining the conflicting personality premise since well before Bill Bixby on 1970s TV. Minor Premise ups the ante in stellar fashion, with no less than 10 identities competing for one man’s consciousness.

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) is a scientist living in the shadow of his late father, but Ethan’s on the verge of a breakthrough that would make his spotlight quite a bit brighter.

His work is centered on mapping memories as physical imprints on neural pathways. If Ethan can isolate sections of the brain, he foresees amazing possibilities such as boosting intellect, erasing Alzheimers and PTSD, maybe even constructing consciousness.

But when Ethan goes full Brundlefly and experiments on himself, his identity is fractured into 10 different emotions – ranging from euphoric to psychotic – each operating at six-minute increments.

Anyone familiar with 2004’s wonderful Primer will feel right at home, especially after Ethan’s colleague and former flame Allie (Paton Ashbrook) drops by to help him put the pieces of his mind back together. From there, the film becomes a one setting two-hander, as director/co-writer Eric Schultz unveils a feature debut of clever intellect, stylish pacing and claustrophobic, beat-the-clock tension.

Sridharan and Ashbrook make a formidable team, anchoring their wary chemistry and heady dialogue with a “try to keep up” attitude that’s organically right for their characters. They’re brilliant scientists (Schultz, by the way, studied psychology at Harvard) and we’re not, so if you pay enough attention and suspend a little disbelief, Minor Premise crackles with some major sci-fi thrills.

Grade: B+

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan

In Gateway Film Center’s Virtual Screening Room and streaming

by Hope Madden

Sloppy and ruinous, raucous and charged, and more than anything, punk rock—honestly, this could describe about a dozen Julian Temple movies. In this case, crashing the party of his Sex Pistols docs and his intimate Joe Strummer film is Shane McGowan. And he’s pissed.

Drunk, I mean.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan is Temple’s exploration of life after punk.

The poet of Irish rock, a traditionalist who set gritty street ballads to Celtic tunes, McGowan wanted to save Irish music. This was the legacy he was after, and as frontman of the Pogues—Ireland’s second most successful and likely most Irish band—he did.

Yes, here’s where all rock biopics ask, “At what cost?” Temple’s film doesn’t wait, though. Opening as it does on McGowan, 60-years-old, slurring, wheelchair bound and still drinking, Crock of Gold never hides from the ravages of a punk rock life.

The young McGowan railed at the cliché of the drunken Irishman even as he personally confirmed it. “You want a Paddy?” he says of the British establishment. “I’ll give you a fucking Paddy!”

The film faithfully follows McGowan’s chronology, from boyhood in County Tipperary to angry adolescence in London, on to thrashabout music and eventually international stardom before the inevitable crash, slow rebuild, and crash some more.

And McGowan himself is right there, either narrating the unfolding events or listening in to earlier tapes of him narrating. His constant presence anchors the wild, fascinating tales with their physical toll.

Temple also fills the screen with bizarre animation, old movie footage of the Irish War and of bucolic country life, as well as images of McGowan’s late 70s London, Sex Pistols show and all. What he conjures is an image of clashing ideas and ideals that found a home in McGowan’s imagination and translated into melancholy street music.

McGowan touring a life of drink and drugs, violence and very little toothpaste are well documented. It’s hard to pin down the feelings drummed up by all these stories. The modern day balladeer—a full set of dentures on display when he smiles, which is rarely—seems simultaneously brash and regretful.

For passing fans or newcomers to McGowan’s music, Crock of Gold is an unusually clear-eyed testament to the toll of punk rock excess. These guys were not meant to live forever.

But for true fans, it’s a painful and strangely beautiful look into one remarkable if misspent life.

Grade: A-

Luxor

Streaming

by Matt Weiner

Faulkner wrote that the past is never dead… it’s not even past. British aid worker Hana (Andrea Riseborough) is hellbent on putting this to the test in Luxor, a slow burn of a spiritual journey from writer/director Zeina Durra that brings together vibrant Egyptian settings and a remarkable, nuanced performance from Riseborough.

Hana, taking some time off from her medical work on the Jordan-Syrian border, returns to the city of Luxor. It’s a place that holds great meaning and memories for her, even if her PTSD has collapsed much of those memories into an unnerving fog of past and present events and regrets all confronting her at once.

Hana’s stay is further complicated by the appearance of Sultan (Karim Saleh), her ex-lover. Sultan is an archaeologist working on a dig, and it’s an irony that does not escape Hana’s notice that the two are back together in the ancient city to excavate their pasts—and come across a few noteworthy relics.

The collision between old and new is a recurring motif for director Durra, made physical with the temple ruins but even more poignantly through Hana’s fragile mental state. This is where the film’s evocative settings of the past come to life, powered by Riseborough’s urgent reveries that drag her from past to present, and finally force her to come to terms with the trauma she has fled.

Much of the film follows Hana and Sultan wandering the city, their conversations going around in metaphorical circles as Hana does her best to elide over any sort of catharsis. In a way, the film is like a spiritual counterpart to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series: those characters play their mid-life ennui up for laughs, but there’s an uncanny shared impulse to travel outside of one’s regular life to find whatever it is they think they’re missing.

It’s a journey that Durra treats with reverence, and with an emotional payoff that upends the film’s measured pace. Who knew archaeology could dig so deep?

Grade: A-

Divine Love

Available in Wexner Center for the Arts Virtual Screening Room

by Cat McAlpine

In the near future, Brazil is under Evangelical leadership. Middle-aged Joana, a devout believer in both Jesus and bureaucracy, is doing the lord’s work as a notary. This gives her plenty of opportunities to convince clients filing for divorce to instead join her couples-only cult and save their marriages.

Writer/Director Gabriel Mascaro paints a visceral picture in Divine Love with long sex scenes, full frontal nudity, and even a graphic hospital scene. But all the flesh we see feels distant and unnatural, illuminated by neon lights, sometimes clouded by haze, and always caught in rituals of necessity.

In 2027, the most important characteristics for women are their marital status and their pregnancy status, brightly displayed on the screens of “detectors” when they pass into buildings. And what Joana (Dira Paes) wants more than anything is to have a child. She and her husband Danilo (Julio Machado) are trying everything they can to conceive, and the process has Joana frequenting her local drive-thru pastor (Emílio de Mello).

Mascaro and co-writer Rachel Daisy Ellis don’t tell you how to feel about religion, even the future’s sexy, club-going, drive-thru version. Instead, they focus on exploring Joana’s own journey of faith.

At one point, her drive-thru pastor urges Joana that he can help her go through the motions of repentance, even if she doesn’t feel guilty. She assures him she regrets nothing, but women’s position seems worse in this new age. The same way that “Divorced” flashes over some heads, “Guilty” seems to flash over Joana’s, despite her protestations. Her faith remains constant.

The biggest conflict of Divine Love is Joana’s interior faith versus the faith of those around her. Everything she does is in complete alignment with her belief system, but it doesn’t save her from being judged or from losing the things most precious to her. “Faith doesn’t need to be tested,” a voiceover muses, but Joana seems to be tested at every turn.

Visually, the film is a marvel. I’m a sucker for lighting and Mascaro delivers from hazy pink rooms to natural light making gorgeous silhouettes. He paints good vignettes too, interspersing the narrative with pretty pictures, like the notary staff lazing on the lawn at lunch-time, tangled up in each other.

Shocking and beautiful, Divine Love is worth the watch even if its conclusion leaves you with more questions than answers.

Grade: B-

Werewolf

Streaming

by Hope Madden

Liberation isn’t always the good time it’s cracked up to be. In his strangely hopeful tale Werewolf, writer/director Adrian Panek offers a different image of social rebuilding.

His film follows a handful of orphans of the Nazi occupation. Eight children liberated from a concentration camp are dropped off at a makeshift orphanage—really a deserted mansion, long bereft of food, no running water, no electricity. The possibility of aid comes by way of rare visits from Russian guards who may or may not bring rations, and may or may not bring their own danger.

Still, little by little the children begin to shake off the horrors of the camp. They explore the woods around them, find berries, even play. But Nazi danger is everywhere—maybe in the bunkers dug deep into the surrounding mountains. Definitely in the woods.

Lurking figures and echoing growls haunt the film from the children’s first steps outside the ruined mansion. Then there’s a body, then more bodies. When Panek reveals the source of the terror, Werewolf could easily turn to pulpy horror. It does not.

At times the film conjures the same magic and dread of Monos, but Panek may see more resilience than Lord of the Flies in children. The filmmaker shows restraint and a forgiving nature when it comes to the barbarity of childhood. He reveals strong instincts with his young cast, understating sentiment and avoiding either the maudlin or the saccharine.

Werewolf is beautifully shot, inside the crumbling castle, out in the woods, even in the early, jarring nonchalance of the concentration camp’s brutality. Panek hints at supernatural elements afoot, but the magic in his film is less metaphorical than that. 

The film is creepy and tense. It speaks of the unspeakable – the level of evil that can only really be understood through images of Nazi horror—but it sees a path back to something unspoiled.

Grade: A-

Girl with No Mouth

Streaming

by Hope Madden

If you haven’t seen writer/director Can Evrenol’s 2015 feature debut Baskin, you really must. Watch it right now.

Unless you’re squeamish. Then maybe don’t. But there is another film you might like, Evrenol’s surprisingly good natured post-apocalyptic kid adventure, Girl with No Mouth.

A little bit Goonies, a little bit Mad Max (you know, the one with the kids with the mullets), a little bit Peter Pan, and a lot of deformed children. He is Can Evrenol, after all.

His film is set ten years after The Corporation’s big disaster. Ten-year-old Peri (Elif Sevinc, an effective hero regardless of the fact that she has no dialog) bears the evidence of that disaster. When The Corporation sends goons around to finish cleaning up any remaining evidence, Peri is on the run in the woods, where she finds three friends with similar birth defects.

They believe they’re pirates.

You have to give it to Evrenol, who flavors the film with childlike innocence and fantasy without soft peddling the horror of their situation. It’s a wildly unusual tone the film hits, but it never misses.

Girl has a sense of humor entirely lacking in Baskin, as well as a feeling of optimism. There is blood and death, maggots and burning flesh, but there’s real joy in this film, however weird that is to say.

The four children—Denizhan Akbaba, Ozgur Civelek and Kaan Alpdayi, alongside Sevinc— are utterly captivate. Their performances are not showy, but they are vibrant and sometimes giddy. It’s the liveliest post-apocalypse you’re likely to see.

It may never live up to the sheer WTF nastiness of Baskin, nor is it likely to haunt your nightmares the way that descent into hell would. Girl with No Mouth is an adventure film more than a horror movie, and its hopeful resolution may seem out of place in a landscape devoid of such whimsy.

It’s also the second excellent film I’ve seen this week (along with Adrian Panek’s Werewolf) that realizes adults ruin everything and there’s really only one way to fix it.

Grade: B

18 to Party

Streaming

by Hope Madden

Does every crappy small town in America have a dive called Polo’s where mangey kids—many of them well, well under age—line up to try to get in?

Well, if not, writer/director Jeff Roda’s 18 to Party makes that and just about everything else seem universal. His Linklater-esque exploration of near-adolescence runs its course in a single evening, but that doesn’t make it any easier to forget.

Sure, the high schoolers are all lined up out front waiting for the sun to go down and the bouncer to start letting people in. But Missy, Kira and James, Shel and Brad, Peter and Dean are stuck out behind the club, wasting time and hoping against hope that night manager Rizzo is cool enough to let them in.

Eventually.

Roda understands small town socializing and boredom enough to know that most of the evening’s intrigue, and most of its memories, will take place in those hours before Rizzo makes up his mind.

It’s 1984 and Generation X is, as happened to usually be the case, unsupervised. Well, Shel (a standout Tanner Flood) is supposed to be at Brad’s (Oliver Gifford). Everyone else’s parents are at the town meeting about the UFO sighting.

Thoughts of extra-terrestrials, worries about getting in, general social anxiety and inevitable personality clashes take a back seat to the realization that Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson, really excellent) is back.

No one’s seen him since that thing with his brother.

Roda’s approach is lackadaisical, although the energy that comes naturally off a gaggle of 14-year-olds is enough to deliver regular explosions. Why doesn’t Shel want to fool around with Amy? What is Brad so mad about? Why is Kira so weird?

The film and the evening are loosely structured, allowing for plenty of riffs that occasionally provide a wink to the times. (“U2 ripped off The Alarm,” Kira claims. “Check back with me in 5 years and we’ll see who’s still around.”)

More often, though, Roda develops darker threads that suggest the kind of doom that can dog you even before you start high school, kiss a girl or get into your first party.

Roda has a light, meandering touch, far more interested in a slice of mid-Eighties life than in the specificity of a John Hughes retread. Characters are familiar, the situation feels authentic, and the mixture of nostalgia, dread and optimism paint a fascinating if unfinished picture.

Grade: B

King of Knives

Streaming

by Brandon Thomas

I think most modern movie-goers would agree that the last thing they want to see is another movie detailing the mid-life crisis of a rich New Yorker. It’s hard to muster even the most sarcastic crocodile tears while watching a sad advertising executive drive his sports car through Manhattan. Cynicism aside, King of Knives might appear to be the king of cliches at first glance, but this is a film that has a few tricks up its sleeve.  

Aforementioned Frank (Gene Pope) is our through-line into a family that, on the surface, looks to be typical, albeit with a few rough edges. The light banter that permeates through a celebratory anniversary dinner early on is quickly smothered as a hint of tragedy manifests itself. As the fractures in Frank and his wife Kathy’s (Mel Harris) marriage begin to show, their daughters (Roxi Pope and Emily Bennett) struggle with their own wants and relationships.

King Of Knives toys with our expectations from the get-go. There’s a whimsical edge that engulfs the early scenes – a tone that doesn’t feel too far off from a winky Julia Roberts movie of the 90s. The tone begins an interesting transition when family tragedy, infidelity, and mental illness enter the fray. It’s in this transition that King of Knives shows its hand. 

Brutal honesty gives King of Knives its power. This isn’t a movie looking for an easy happy ending. Instead, the characters are going through the painful process of finding what truly makes them happy. For Frank, it’s finally owning up to what a terrible father and husband he’s been. It’s not about Frank searching for pity, or the film doing so on Frank’s behalf. Instead, it’s about seeing a character confront the choices that caused so much pain for the people he loves. 

It’s not all blue Mondays, though. King of Knives is genuinely funny. The cast has a natural chemistry that allows them to bounce off one another. The comedy isn’t about bits being paid off but instead comes through its characters. 

First-time feature director Jon Delgado might not have the sharpest visual eye, but he also knows that this material isn’t looking for a flashy approach. Delgado lets the story and performances shine without letting his more technically-focused experience get in the way.  

King of Knives isn’t going to change your mind about rich New Yorkers, but you might approach the fictional kind with a little more empathy next time.  

Grade: B-

What Lies Below

Streaming

by George Wolf

Eeewww – no 16 year-old girl wants to hear about her Mom’s sexcapades with the new boyfriend!

John (Trey Tucker) is kinda hot, though, and young Liberty (Ema Horvath) has caught herself staring when he traipses around the Adirondacks lake house with his shirt off – which is often.

Mom Michelle (Mena Suvari) is 42 but has told John she’s 35 – and she’s desperate for “Libs” to keep her secret so he doesn’t run off. But John seems like he’s strangely attached to Michelle – or at least to the lake. In fact, as Libs looks closer, there’s plenty about John that’s strange.

He says he’s an “aquatic geneticist” working to preserve fresh water supplies. But man, he’s really interested in parasites, especially ones that can adapt to any host available.

Writer/director Braden R. Duemmler’s feature debut unfolds like a minor league Under the Skin. There’s simmering sexual tension here – some of it metaphorical – amid dreamlike atmospherics and a few glimpses of a creature on the hunt.

Horvath (The Mortuary Collection) is great. Her mix of teenage disgust, confusion and curiosity hits just the right pitch, as does her panicked courage when Lib has to fight for her life (and her Mom’s).

Not every logical building block is water tight, and the sci-fi/horror combo sometimes feels desperately earnest. But the creep factor in What Lies Below holds steady, with Duemmler earning some water-logged points for not copping out at the finish.

Grade: B-

Anything for Jackson

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Writer Keith Cooper and director Justin G. Dyck collaborate often, but nothing either one of them has done will properly prepare you for the reverse-exorcism horror Anything for Jackson.

Not Christmas with a View, or Christmas Catch, or Christmas with a Prince, or A Very Country Christmas, or Hometown Holiday, or Baby in a Manger, or A Christmas Exchange, or Dyck’s forthcoming Christmas in the Rockies and Christmas in the Wild.

It’s as if somewhere in the dead center of all that holiday hoopla, the duo decided they needed to just sit down and write something about the absolute opposite experience. And this is how they made a good movie.

Steeped in grief and boasting a small handful of beautiful performances, the film follows Dr. and Mrs. Walsh (Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy), grandparents willing to do anything to bring their little Jackson back to them.

The opening sequence beautifully situates you in this particular brand of domestic bliss. The aging couple has a lived-in authenticity about them, even as they are embarking on a very new phase in their relationship.

The details of their little plot cause two simultaneous sets of complications, one legal and one supernatural. Where the filmmakers take this utterly lovely couple making incredibly ugly decisions is fascinating, primarily because of McCarthy and Richings’s performances.

They’re not alone. As their involuntary helpmate,  Konstantina Mantelos creates a character in a role that rarely offers that opportunity.

There’s a clean simplicity in the storytelling that’s appealing, although Act 3 is not nearly as clearly defined or interesting as the balance of the film. But maybe it’s not the resolution the film is after, or really the audience. It’s the story of this sweet couple, mad with grief, that’ll get you.

Grade: B+

Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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