MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: What We Do In Shadows, Resnaisx2, Marfa Girl, and more

What We Do in the Shadows: Blu-ray
Mockumentaries and genre spoofs come and go, these days. Such hit-and-run parodies as Vampires Suck, Date Movie, The Starving Games and Meet the Spartans take the scattershot approach, riding the success of one hit picture to take none-too-subtle potshots at a dozen other movies. The best, including Airplane!, This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, are in no hurry to tip the gag to viewers who aren’t in on the gag from the get-go. Zombie, vampire and alien-intruder movies rely so heavily on genre tropes, conventions and clichés that it’s sometimes difficult to discern the line separating satire from homage. The sub-genre can be traced all the way back to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, in 1948, or, perhaps, seven years earlier, in Hold That Ghost. Among the luminaries who milked mirth from monsters in the 1960-70s were Roman Polanski (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) and Stan Dragoti (Love at First Bite). Cult favorite Udo Kier, who’d already played Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein under Andy Warhol’s banner, added a certain amount of credibility to Charles Matton’s 1976 curiosity, Spermula. A couple of decades later, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would kick off another round of genre parodies, with the smart and wickedly funny Shaun of the Dead. Jonathan Levine would allow for the possibility of romance and redemption among the undead, in Warm Bodies, while Cockneys vs. Zombies added a unique regional flare to the splatter-fest trend. Otherwise, a lot of very amusing titles have been wasted on comedies that would have benefitted from more money and more laughs.

One needn’t have been a zealous fan of “Flight of the Conchords” and Eagle vs Shark, or even a vampire completist, to be drawn to What We Do in the Shadows. Those who are, however, probably will get a real kick out of this razor-sharp genre parody from New Zealand. The largely improvised mockumentary defies the odds by doing an end-run around the Scary Movie and Scream franchises and adding a supernatural spin to such bros-will-be-bros pictures as Swingers and Saturday Night Fever. It is the conceit of co-writers-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi that a group of vampire roommates in contemporary Wellington permit a camera crew full access to their weeks-long preparation for the annual Unholy Masquerade. It is a formal bash, where the vampires party with the city’s zombies, banshees and other mutants. Like an upside-down version of MTV’s “The Real World,” the apartment they share is an unholy mess, with dirty dishes filling every flat surface and dried-up blood soiling the pots and pans in the kitchen. They might have acquired their fashion sense directly from George Bryan “Beau” Brummel or Oscar Wilde. The bloodshed, of which there’s plenty, is at once delightfully gratuitous and borderline gut-churning. More than anything else, however, What We Do in the Shadows provides lots of good R-rated fun for genre nuts. Rhys Darby, who played the singers’ hapless agent in “Flight of the Conchords,” is a key part of the cast, as are as several Kiwi actors from Eagle vs. Shark. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clement and Waititi, promo clips, deleted scenes, in-character interviews and clips, a background featurette and poster gallery.

Love Unto Death/Life Is a Bed of Roses: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s taken an Introduction to European Cinema course in college can attest to the head-scratching that followed screenings of Alain Resnais’ arthouse classics, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as the anxiety caused by having to write papers on them. Some of the confusion came from Resnais’ work being lumped together with other examples of the French New Wave, which emerged coincidental to his move from documentaries (Night and Fog) to fiction. In exploring the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, Resnais frequently disregarded conventional notions of narrative and story development. The elliptical framing could be as perplexing and inexplicable as any viewer’s personal recollection of a dream or nightmare. Because Resnais frequently collaborated with such accomplished French authors and left-wing scenarists as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Gruault, Henri Laboritand, David Mercer, Jean Cayrol, Jorge Semprún, Jacques Sternberg and Chris Marker, it was particularly difficult for Americans to determine where the writers’ contributions ended and the director’s began. Even those early arthouse buffs who fell in love with Breathless and The 400 Blows felt intimated by the intellectualism that informed Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.  I wonder how many of the students who gave up on Resnais in college have returned to those films in retrospectives or on Blu-ray and attempted to reinterpret them from the point of view of an adult. With all of the informative bonus features and first-person recollections now available to viewers, there’s no telling what they might take from these beautifully crafted landmark films. I’m happy that I made the effort, even if some of the mysteries remain unsolved, and have gone to tackle works from later creative periods.

Cohen Media’s winning streak continues with remastered editions of films Resnais directed back-to-back in the mid-1980s, featuring popular European actors who appear in both pictures. Released in 1983, Life Is a Bed of Roses could hardly be more French and, therefore, more foreign to American eyes … although a Wes Anderson remake wouldn’t be completely out of the question. As such, brushing up on the intellectual fantasy before diving into the deep end only makes sense and shouldn’t be construed as cheating. In it, Resnais and Gruault (The Story of Adele H, My American Uncle) pay tribute to three important French filmmakers — Georges Méliès, Marcel L’Herbier and Eric Rohmer – by interweaving three stories from different eras around a cotton-candy castle in the Ardennes. In an extended period of peace before the outbreak of World War I, the fabulously wealthy Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) announces plans to build a Disneyland-like complex for the exclusive pleasure of his family and friends. What doesn’t go according to this powerful man’s plans are the decision by his intended queen of the realm (Fanny Ardant) to marry another of their friends (Pierre Arditi). If that rejection wasn’t enough to dissuade Forbek, the Kaiser’s intentions to invade France were. Years later, the count invites friends who survived the war to the castle for a utopian interlude complete with flowing robes, love potions and pre-hippy philosophy. That it stands alone on the property doesn’t make the castle any less interesting. Skipping ahead, once again, this time to the 1980s, the castle has been converted to a school dedicated to the theory that children can learn everything they’ll need to know in life through free play and curiosity. A conference of progressive educators has been convened to toss around ideas, but none of the guests are willing to concede that their ideas are anything but sacrosanct. Educators are like that. Other bonds are established, however, through the promise of romance and Philippe-Gérard’s evocative soundtrack.

Resnais and Gruault find an interesting way to use the music of composer Hans Werner Henze, as well, in Love Unto Death, a drama as emotionally wrenching as its companion piece is fantastical. In what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, Henze’s music serves as fifth voice. Simon, an archaeologist, and Elisabeth, a botanist, are deeply in love, despite being together only a short time. Out of the blue, Simon suffers a heart attack and is declared dead. Just as the doctor is about to leave the home they share, Simon rallies to the point where he refuses further treatment. As it turns out, their closest friends, Judith (Ardant) and Jerome (Andre Dussolier), are Lutheran clerics. They respond to their friend’s near-death with compassion, of course, but also great curiosity. He remembers key elements of his aborted journey to the afterlife, after all, and, even though he’s an atheist, was profoundly moved by the experience. Judith and Jerome had recently lost a parishioner to suicide and had yet to come to grips with their inability to prevent it. Naturally, much soul-searching follows their discussions over the dinner table and in private. Simon, whose career-long obsession has been the disposal of refuse in primitive communities, rightly wonders if anyone will give a damn about the subject when he dies. And, if not, what then was the point of being alive? Elisabeth refuses to listen to any of this post-traumatic philosophizing. She can’t imagine living without her lover and a visit to the archeological dig only adds to their confusion about how Simon ought to proceed, given the fragility of his heart. The snowy interstitials and musical interludes give viewers something else to consider. Clearly, Love Unto Death is the furthest thing from a comedy. Still, the subject is something familiar to all of us, in one way or another, and the occasion of a short-lived miracle offers a perfect forum for such exchanges of thoughts and fears. Commentary is provided on both films by Wade Major and Andy Klein.

Marfa Girl
A couple of years ago, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer paid a visit to tiny Marfa, Texas, which inexplicably has become a mecca for artists and other hipster visionaries, despite being located in the middle of cow country, 200 miles away from the nearest airport. In his introduction, Safer surmised, “Marfa lives on, is even thriving: its renaissance spurred by the arrival of a host of young, cutting edge artists. Mixing cowboys and culture might seem like a bad idea, but it’s made Marfa a capital of quirkiness … and it’s produced a harmony as sweet as the country music that fills the air.” When cutting-edge filmmaker Larry Clark traveled deep into the heart of Texas to make Marfa Girl, he probably ate in the same restaurants as Safer mentioned and, perhaps, visited a gallery or two. You won’t find them in his film. Although one of the young women we meet is a promising artist, she largely functions here as an extreme example of an innocent child corrupted by her hippie parents’ radical incorporation of free love into their child-rearing regimen. For decades, now, Clark has specialized in photographing and filming teenagers and young adults who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first movie, Kids, documented a day in the life of a group of aimless New York City teenagers, with nothing better to do than cop drugs, skate, drink, smoke and have unprotected sex. The difference between the kids in Marfa Girl and those in Kids is that, no matter how burned out the New York teens were at such an early point in their lives, they were surrounded by people who had overcome similar circumstances and succeeded on their own terms. The list includes writer Harmony Korine, who was a 19-year-old street kid when he met Clark. In Marfa, the characters might never have met anyone who achieved anything greater than landing a job at the local diner and made a career of it … that, or the military.

We’re introduced to Adam (Adam Mediano) on the eve of his 16th birthday, as he’s being picked up on curfew violation by a brutal Border Patrol agent. (The city doesn’t appear to have a police force of its own and isn’t close to the nearest border.) The cop has it out for Adam, in large part because any infraction gives him an excuse for returning the boy home to his parrot-obsessed mother, who brings out the most vile sexual fantasies in him. Adam’s birthday gifts arrive in the form of an erotic paddling from a hugely pregnant teacher, several joints and sex with a neighbor who aspires to be a stripper. His more age-appropriate girlfriend gives him the same present. If this is an unusual coming-of-age ritual for Lone Star teens, no one in Adam’s crowd seems surprised by it. In a funny exchange, the boy and the slightly older artist (Drake Burnette) are strolling along a dusty path when she asks if he is aware of the sexual properties of the clitoris. He responds, “Only from what I’ve seen on ‘South Park.’” This leads to a rather detailed explanation of how the female sex organ works and ought to be pleasured. Any modicum of blissful sexual innocence remaining in the teens is lost within the next several hours by the actions of the porn-addicted patrolman. If viewers already familiar with such Clark works as Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers and the The Smell of Us aren’t shocked by the ending of Marfa Girl, it’s only because it’s of a piece with those titles. And, where Kids was correctly perceived to be a cautionary tale, Marfa Girl’s power to shock will likely be limited to the parents of children approaching high school age. As usual, the most powerful performances are delivered by first-time actors. Clearly, this is not Morley Safer’s Marfa, Texas.

Red Knot
Not long after the introduction of the birth-control pill and publication of Masters and Johnson’s “Human Sexual Response,” it stopped being unusual for men and women to cohabitate before entering into marriage. Such arrangements allowed them time to check each other out before committing to matrimony, one way or the other. Parents raised their eyebrows, but it was difficult to argue the logic of sampling the goods before making a commitment. The widespread availability of contraception devices allowed couples the time to get to know each other, before having to focus all of their attention on a third member of the family. If the divorce rate continued to rise into the early 1980s, it was for reasons unrelated to shacking up ahead of nuptials. Many analysts are convinced that the overall rate has declined since its high and it may now be below 50 percent, if not by much. I don’t know if the couple we meet in Scott Cohen’s tense relationship drama, Red Knot, lived together before getting married and setting off on a disastrous honeymoon excursion, literally to the end of the earth. The characters played by Olivia Thirlby (Just Before I Go) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) seem very happy to be together in the opening minutes of Cohen’s debut film. If Chloe would have preferred a cruise to Tahiti or the Cayman Islands, instead of Peter’s destination of choice, Antarctica, she tries her best not to let her disappointment show. The tiny cabins and bunk beds afforded passengers on the Red Knot may not have been measured with the needs of honeymooners in mind, but they give it the old college try, anyway.

Even before they reach Antarctica, though, Olivia begins to feel as if Peter is paying more attention to the scientists aboard the ship than to her. It’s so subtle that Peter, like many men in the same position, is unable to notice any changes in his behavior or any of the fissures growing between them. Neither do we, really. A professional decision impulsively made by Peter causes Olivia to go off like an M-80 in the hands of a careless teenage boy. Within moments, it seems, she’s flirted her way into the good graces of the handsome Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell), who finds her a more accommodating cabin. If Emerson has reasons of his own for spending months at a time at sea, Cohen wisely avoids the temptation to turn Red Knot into an R-rated episode of “The Love Boat.” The truly big chill is felt every time the Red Knot cuts through the ice pack and passages between the snow-covered mountains that tower over the ship.  Cohen and cinematographer Michael Simmonds (The Lunchbox) capture aspects of the continent I haven’t seen in the many recent documentaries about penguins and the year-round population of scientists and support crews. The scenery is utterly spectacular and the skies above couldn’t be more ominous. Blessedly free of clichés and easy answers, Red Knot describes exactly what can happen when a marriage hits an iceberg.

Cemetery Without Crosses: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Two-thirds Spaghetti Western and a third Escargot Western, Cemetery Without Crosses (a.k.a., “The Rope and the Colt”) is that rare blend of French and Italian sensitivities that honors the mythology of American West without also smearing the boot prints of Sergio Leone or John Ford. Multi-hyphenate filmmaker and star Robert Hossein gives credit where it’s due, however, by dedicating his terrifically entertaining Western to Leone, under whom he served in Once Upon a Time in the West. Favorable comparisons to the “Dollars Trilogy” can be made, though, in the majestic Andalusian exteriors, spare sets and costume designs, and no-nonsense protagonist. Those distinctively haunting Ennio Morricone musical cues may be missing in Cemetery Without Crosses, but Andre Hossein’s score and Scott Walker’s theme song easily bridge the gap. Although not quite as menacing as the anti-heroes and villains in Leone’s films, Bob Hussein is very good as the gun-slinger, Manuel, whose good friend is hung at the gate of his modest homestead after being caught in the middle of a feud between two rival families. (I can’t understand why anyone would choose to farm patches of desert that even cacti avoid for lack of water, but it didn’t seem to bother Ford or Leone.) The man’s stunningly beautiful widow, Maria (Michèle Mercier), finds Manuel in a creaky ghost town not far from the homestead. She pleads with him to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Rogers clan, but he is non-committal in the kind of way that tells us he’s already bought into it. After gunning down a bunch of Caine family ruffians in the saloon/brothel, Manuel is able to insinuate himself into the good graces of the Rogers clan, where his plan includes kidnaping Old Man Rogers’ daughter and turning her over to Maria for nefarious purposes of her own. The French touches can be found in Hossein’s treatment of the female characters, who are given more to do here than in most oaters. The action in Cemetery Without Crosses isn’t of the non-stop variety, but, when it erupts, it’s pretty entertaining. Hossein shares writing credit for the film with Claude Desailly and Dario Argento, although the extent of the giallo specialist’s contributions are in doubt. Arrow Video’s 2K restoration is typically first-rate, adding the all-new featurette “Remembering Sergio,” vintage interviews with cast and crew and Hossein, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by James Flames, and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
In last week’s column, I looked at the mini-series “Crimson Field” and 1979 remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is the third winner in this World War I trifecta. Like his Decasia, The Great Flood and Just Ancient Loops, Beyond Zero combines rare archival material and contemporary music. In this case, the seriously distressed 35mm nitrate footage was shot on and around battlefields of the First World War. It is accompanied by the Kronos Quartet, performing a score created by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. For those unfamiliar with Morrison’s work, watching largely eroded film stock accompanied by music can have the same effect as a good old-fashioned light show at the Fillmore in the 1960s. The images that find their way through the damage often takes the form of ghosts from the far past. Here, they include recruiting rallies, planes flying in formation, tanks crushing everything in their path, troops advancing from the trenches and, my favorite, a dog standing guard over a dead or wounded soldier lying in a farm field, barking to alert stretcher bearers of his master’s location. It’s a truly remarkable document and, at 39 minutes, not at all taxing on the eye. The DVD adds footage of the Kronos Quartet performing in front of a large screen showing the film.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Blu-ray
The easiest way to describe Anurag Kashyap’s gangland saga, Gangs of Wasseypur, is to boil it down to a cross between The Godfather trilogy and an atypically violent Bollywood movie. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, Gangs Of Wasseypur chronicles the a multigenerational rivalry between two families whose mafia lineage begins with the divvying of spoils at the end of British rule in India’s coal-rich Dhanbad district and extends to the bloody settling of long-held debts in 2009. The influence of Bollywood can be seen in the complicated romantic entanglements and a soundtrack that includes 25 popular and traditional songs. One family is controlled by the cunning politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), who exploits his constituents while also promising them protection from the descendants of the notorious train robber, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat). Singh’s muscle is provided by the city’s Qureshi Muslims, a sub-caste of animal butchers known to punish their enemies in the same manner as they prepare meat for their customers. The patriarch of the Khan family went from robbing trains to taking over the coal mines handed over to rich Indian businessman by the British, before leaving Dodge. From there, corruption would flow through his son, Shahid Khan (Manoj Bajpai) and his five sons from two concurrent wives. If Shahid’s son had been a Corleone, he’d be Sonny, while Singh’s son more closely resembles Fredo. The wives may know what’s expected of them in such a male-dominated environment, but they can be as cold and calculating as Connie Corleone Rizzi in Godfather III. Culled from the ranks of supermodels and stars of regional Indian cinemas, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen and Anurita Jha are as talented as they ethereally beautiful in the Bollywood tradition. The biggest drawback for American viewers will be the film’s five-hour length. Naturally divided into two parts of equal lengths, it can be further subdivided by viewers, as if it were a mini-series. Kashyap is also responsible for the gritty coming-of-age story, That Girl in Yellow Boots, in which a half-Indian Brit is lured to the less glamorous precincts of Mumbai by a letter sent by her estranged father. It’s considered to be a prime example of the burgeoning Indian indie movement.

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie: Blu-ray
Anyone privy to the press releases sent out regularly by Troma Entertainment’s marketing staff knows that company co-founder Lloyd Kaufman has kept busy over the past few years basking in the glory of finally being recognized as one of the most distinctive and influential filmmakers in the horror genre and a true pop-cultural icon. Like John Waters, he travels around the world accepting lifetime achievement awards, holding seminars and retrospectives, and conducting master classes. He also finds the time to direct or co-direct a picture each year, make cameos in other people’s movies, write the occasional book and oversee the distribution of non-Troma originals. Shot and released almost concurrently, in 1989, with The Toxic Avenger Part II, Toxic Avenger III: The Last Temptation of Toxie finds Our Hero back in Tromaville, after his sojourn to Japan. He returns to a town virtually free of crime. So, after taking on the censorial owners of chain video stores, he has next to nothing to do. Desperate to raise money for the experimental surgery that could restore his blind fiancée’s eyesight (Phoebe Legere), Toxie accepts a lucrative job with the evil multinational conglomerate, Apocalypse Inc. (a.k.a., the Devil). His greatest challenge, though, may be avoiding being called “yuppie scum” by Tromaville hipsters. Blu-ray exclusives add a new Introduction by Kaufman; “American Cinematheque Honors 40 Years of Troma” and “TroMoMA”; “Make Your Own Damn Horror Film!,” featuring Kane Hodder and Bill Mosley; “Rabid Grannies! The Informercial!”; LK “Pests” promo video; Troma YouTube “Halloween” and Troma trailers.The vintage DVD material adds commentaries by Kaufman and actor Joe Flieshaker; “Satanic Memories”; interviews; “Confessions of a Snake Lady”; a Toxic posters compilation; and “Lord Fartacus Cult.”

Lost for Words
Although almost nothing rings true in Stanley J. Orzel’s cross-cultural romance, the contemporary Hong Kong setting comes close to making Lost for Words recommendable to fans of star-crossed love stories. An American IT specialist, Michael (Sean Faris), fresh from an eventful stint in the Marines and bad breakup with his girlfriend back in the states, falls in love with an up-and-coming ballerina, Anna (Grace Huang), from mainland China. After a couple of chance encounters, they agree to meet for impromptu language lessons. These lead to sight-seeing dates, during which they discuss their impressions on the shape of clouds and exchange other tentative pre-sex chatter. One cliché follows another – a harpsichord even accompanies a rainy-night stroll on the waterfront – until they hit something resembling an insurmountable roadblock. It would be easy enough to pick apart Orzel’s unabashedly old-fashioned depiction of modern romance, if that’s all there was to Lost for Words. Instead, he takes us to places in Hong Kong, far from the hustle and bustle of the markets, street vendors and bars already surveyed by John Woo and Tsui Hark, among others. As for being an ex-Marine, there are times when Faris barely looks old enough to have gotten out of high school. It might have made more sense if Michael’s background was something substantially less butch. But, since I’m not the intended audience for Lost for Words, I probably should remain neutral on the casting. I will say, though, that Anna’s sarcastic roommate, Mei Mei (Joman Chiang) adds some much-need spice to the dialogue.

TV to DVD
Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Kindness
PBS: Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue
Good manners, forgiveness, friendship and teamwork are the lessons being taught in Nickelodeon’s newest DVD, “Let’s Learn: Kindness.” It features six “super-polite episodes” of the network’s popular franchises, “Wallykazam!,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan.” It contains 140 minutes of social-skills fun, plus a bonus educational worksheet for on-the-go learning.

The CGI-animated “Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue” follows 12-year-old orphan Mia, as she discovers a portal to the magical land of Centopia, where teamwork is required to save it from the evil Queen Panthea.  In this three stories the fantasy world’s unicorns require the help of Mia and her friends among the flying elves, dragons, and other amazing creatures. The stories are “Trumptus Lost,” “The Golden Sun” and “Onchao’s Oasis.”

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Dretzka

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“I remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier