LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Deadly Affair

14 May, 2016 at 12:11 am (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: The Spy who Thought it was a Wee Bit Chilly Out There

CURRENTLY: I found it almost impossible to watch this film without comparing it to works that came later. One would think that it would therefore be hailed as seminal, as a tone-setter and as inspiration. Instead, it feels played and justly forgotten, despite preceding those media to which it pales in comparison.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of 'Call for the Dead'The book was originally titled A Call for the Dead and is Le Carré’s first novel. As mentioned last week, George Smiley appears in The Spy Who and appears here, naturally enough, as the main character in the film based on the first Smiley novel. However, due to the sorts of rights issues that have, until recently, prevented Marvel Comics icon Spider-Man from appearing in Marvel universe movies, the George Smiley that sports Rupert Davies’ walrus mustache and roly-poly face is called “Charlie Dobbs”. However, like Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, — which will be written eight years subsequently — “Dobbs” is married to a younger woman named Ann, who has affairs and relations with other men, despite claiming to love only her husband. In Affair she is portrayed by Harriet Andersson, who at the time was 34 to James Mason’s 57, a slightly more respectable difference than that of his age gap with Sue Lyon in Lolita, which he made four years previous. I pretty much only know Mason from Lolita, a film called Charade that isn’t that one, and from Eddie Izzard impressions. So while I linked the two roles in my head, finding a strangeness in his relationship with a nymphette in the earlier film and a nymphomaniac in the latter, IMDB tells me that Mason made eight films during that four year interim, as well as three television series. So the relationship may well have been far from his mind, let alone that of the viewing public.

But while the spectre of my memories of Humbert Humbert hung listlessly over the film during my viewing, the main haunting was the holographic blue presence of Alec Guinness, whose later interpretation of Smiley I find impossible to eradicate from my mind’s eye and ear. Read the rest of this entry »


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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

6 May, 2016 at 10:49 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: What’s this all about, Smiley?

CURRENTLY: There’s no easy way to abbreviate the title of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Spy is minimalist to the point of confusion, and The Spy Who Came lends itself to parody, whether in the Hustler vein or whether one merely dillies about in a more Austin Powers realm. (As Kelly Sue once said about smirking every time she heard the chorus to Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”, “I am a child.” I find it hard not to succumb to equally juvenile impulses here.) And I feel compelled to avoid “TSWCIFTC”, if only because of a gut prejudice against the gutturally unpronounceable.

The film may teeter on a similar obscurity for long stretches. I suffer from that particular blindness of being unable to distinguish between the average features of Caucasian second-lead actors. And when I first watched this film as a teenager, I wasn’t at all sure that the Leamas who was waiting for his contact at Checkpoint Charlie, the Leamas who worked with Claire Bloom at the cryptophenomenology library, and the drunken, haggard Leamas at the corner store were all the same person. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Richard Burton to recognize him in all his guises, and the film doesn’t exactly work hard to connect those scenes together in tone, location, or time. The transition from Leamas’ debriefing by Control in his offices in The Circus (Le Carré’s consistent codename for what seems, to our modern eyes, to be MI-6) to his visit to the unemployment office gives us almost no idea as to how much time has passed and what are the circumstances of this seeming change of fortune. The director seems to want the viewer to be unsure as to whether Leamas actually fell from the graces of the secret services, or if this is all a cover. The equally abrupt subsequent shift to Leamas’ disheveled aggression toward current shopkeeper and future “M”, Bernard Lee, is hard to reconcile with the cold control of Leamas at work.


“No, fork ’andles. Handles for forks.”

We are eventually provided with context, and the extended stint of deep cover ambiguity gives way to some rather on-the-nose exposition about loyalty and spycraft, about allegiance and sides. Leamas’s cover as a former agent dissatisfied with the service then proceeds to gradually reveal itself as less of a skin, and more of the whole of the man. This becomes the ultimate trope of most of Le Carré’s protagonists: they are unable to disentangle the professional and the personal. With Smiley, this will be that his opposite number will have gone so far to destabilize his opponent, that the Soviet mole has had an affair with Smiley’s wife, thus emasculating him so that any political or intelligence victory is hollow. In The Russia House we have the unfortunately trite declaration that Katya Orlova is the only country that Barley Scott-Blair now calls home.

But back here at the beginning, before any other characters are established and explored, really the second thing the film does is provide Leamas and the audience with an extended treatise on how, in the name of moral certitude, England will and must do terrible things, things that would not hold up to scrutiny by the morals the country is protecting. Read the rest of this entry »

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I Care, You Care, We ALL Care for Le Carré

1 May, 2016 at 10:33 am (clerical, film, le carré diem)

I have been inspired by The Incredible Suit‘s tradition of blogging obsessively about a series of linked films prior to a related release — his most famous is the BlogalongaBond, wherein he revisited each of the 22 official Bond films over the course of the 22 months before the release of Skyfall, but equally entertaining was the slightly clunkierly-titled BlogalongaStarWars, where the sextet was reviewed prior to the release of Episode VII. Watching the beginning of the new adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, I was reminded of just how deep of a well his novels have been, for how long they have been fodder for adaptation, and how I might be able to accrue a similar chunk of bloggery by investigating those of Le Carré’s novels that have made it to the big or the small screen.


New York magazine mentioned that nine films have been made from the Le Carré opus since 1965, and IMDB informs me that it is nine weeks until the release of the tenth in cinemas (and Edward R. Rooney informs Mrs. Bueller that Ferris has been absent nine times). And despite my propensity for long stretches of silence on this blog, I am going to review or respond to one of these films each week until the release of Our Kind of Traitor on July 1st. Then I’m going to curl into a ball and retreat into my normal period of intense internet inactivity.

Because while The Incredible Suit and Smart Overcoat may have similar usernames, that resemblance and any further similarities are purely coincidental. When he ran his projects, they were spaced out over a period of time that was not insane and would not run ramshackle over one’s personal and professional life. I mean, sure, it’s not Doug Benson’s 366 Movie Challenge, and watching and writing about ten films in nine weeks is low-rent stuff for any professional film reviewer, it’s only difficult for anyone who doesn’t already have Le Carré’s body of work near to hand or who hasn’t memorized the HMTL for a lowercase e with an acute accent.

However, in the spirit of Film Blogging, and in homage to Le Carré’s hero character George Smiley, I would encourage anyone to join as one of Smiley’sEmoji’s People, and to summarize the plots of any of the films entirely in emoji. I would do this as an add-on at the end of any article, but I am woefully unfamiliar with the range of available emoji, having eschewed the entire form of communication as a whole despite the best efforts of Chris Hardwick on @Midnight. Any summaremoji’s (I’m not sure that’s going to catch on) sent to me will be dutifully appended at the end of each post and gleefully boosted on social media. Thanks!

It's 'The Russia House'!


May 6 — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
May 13 — The Deadly Affair (1966)
May 20 — The Looking Glass War (1969)
May 27 — The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
June 3 — The Russia House (1990)
June 10 — The Tailor of Panama (2001)
June 17 — The Constant Gardener (2005)
June 24 — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
June 30 — A Most Wanted Man (2014)
July 1 — Our Kind of Traitor (2016)


Related Links:
+ The New York Times on Carré’s legacy of adaptation
+ Traitor for Our Kind of Trailer. Wait, that doesn’t sound right…

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Put Your Fandom All Over My Body

21 December, 2015 at 12:36 pm (film, uncategorized)

I haven’t seen Star Wars.

Pew! Pew! from ThinkGeek

And not in the new, hipster way that young people haven’t seen Star Wars, because they’ve been told all their lives that it’s amazing, and it’s a small act of rebellion (against, amusingly, the Rebellion) to avoid the things their parents loved and fixated upon. Much in the way it took me almost thirty-five years to watch Citizen Kane, because I didn’t trust the mores and scales of those before me, and I both didn’t want to be disappointed that something might have aged badly and didn’t want to begrudgingly admit that maybe it really was the greatest thing ever.

(It’s not, by the way. Kane nor Star Wars. Neither is the greatest thing evs, let alone since sliced bread. But that’s another column.)

A L O N G T I M E A G O I N A G A L A X Y F A R F A R A W A YAnd neither have I not seen Star Wars in the BBC Radio, it’s-just-one-of-those-things-that-passed-me-by sense. No, I’ve seen Star Wars, I just haven’t seen Episode Seven. Not yet.

The first film to make over one hundred million dollars on opening day (although that number may include preview screenings from Thursday), and I am not one of the many Bothans that saw it. I usually pride myself on being able to be part of the cultural conversation in a timely manner, but I’m sitting this one out for a week or two. Which means that if I want to be spoiler wary, I have to keep much of cultural conversation in a sealed container. Next week, upon finally having been forced to awaken, I can go back to the internet and pry open that box and see what everyone has been saying about it a little too late. I’m a little sad about this, but if there’s anything that Twitter has taught me is to be used to getting to the interesting conversation far too late to chime in.

And it will be interesting to be slightly on the opposite side of a cultural phenomenon. Because since the Fake Geek spats of the last few years, I’ve been thinking about how it does and doesn’t bug me how much nerd culture has swept commonplace marketeering. Read the rest of this entry »

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Criterion Blogathon: Charade

18 November, 2015 at 10:44 pm (charade, film)

This post is intended as part of the Criterion Blog-a-thon, hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screening, and Aaron at Criterion Blues. Click HERE for the full roster for the event!

It’s been a good couple weeks for me and the Criterion Collection. They had a 50% off flash sale in early October and then they did their annual November sale with Barnes & Noble, and I proceeded to clean up about half of my profile wishlist. I’ve enjoyed coming home to a brick of Blu-Ray, whether the single-chaptered crisp blue key of Mulholland Drive, or the much-anticipated update of the classic Fisher King Criterion laserdisc. And then, today on the Criterion blog, I learned that the Speakeasy and Criterion Blues film blogs had organized a marathon of homage posts to the collection. Today featured English-language films from 1947 until 1980… which should have included Charade, but no one seems to have stepped up and claimed the title. I don’t really have the time to spend on this, as I should be working on other writing, but I shall stride in where others haven’t deigned to tread and add my own small, unrequested contribution.


I have previously written on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, of copyright issues surrounding it’s public domain status, and how I first started buying various editions of the DVD way back in 2002. The film has either been a touchstone or an obsession of mine, depending upon who you talk to. So what remains as a topic to address? A day after the internet, particularly “Film Twitter”, went nuts about the idea of remaking Memento, it could be time to mention that The A.V. Club listed Charade first amongst its list of films that merited updating or at least a revisit. Cameron Scheetz acknowledges that Jonathan Demme already tried this, but still seems to think that the chemistry and repartee between the leads would crackle under the deft hand of someone like Steven Soderbergh, saying the script would foster his “ability to build palpable, simmering chemistry between his two leads amid a thrilling crime yarn.” I adore Soderbergh, and have faith in his timing, his stylishness, and his control of tone. And if there’s something that Charade tries very hard to do, it’s to pendulum between these three cardinal points of romance, comedy, and genuine suspense, occasionally dangling one over the dark pit of whether a classic Hollywood star could actually be sharkskin: deliciously smooth in one direction, but barbed and even savage in the other. And in Soderbergh’s Side Effects, we unfortunately saw that he wasn’t able to successfully manage that kind of audience deception. That the consequence of lying to another character also meant completely obfuscating the audience as well, which rendered revelations and payoff as a disappointing gruel. Stylish and engaging, but with a sense that not even the most dedicated of mystery readers could have found the hidden clues and followed along at home.

But no, let’s not talk about what the film shouldn’t be, lets talk about how the film succeeds, and then wrap up by noting what the disc itself provides. Read the rest of this entry »

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Today in Charade

21 July, 2015 at 9:10 am (charade, webjunk)

The AV Club is still plugging along, successfully bridging the gap between actual commentary and clickbait in a manner that The Dissolve quite mournfully was unable to do — with a strict reading of “successfully” as “commercially successful” only — and late last night I stumbled upon a headline for an article that claimed a “New search engine lets you quickly find your favorite movie quote’s source” accompanied by a photograph from Charade.

CHARADE: 'Good lord, where is he?'

But wait, I asked myself, how did the article know that was my favorite movie? And why on Earth would that be used as an example of being able to find film quotes, when the lines captured are amongst the least evocative of all time? A quick scrumble about Google Image Search revealed that the above pitcure has shown up in news articles when someone needs an example of movie subtitles or closed-captioning. Why? Because Wikimedia has it as a non-copyrighted image of an example of film subtitles and online journalism seems to use Wikipedia as its first and only stop for research. And why is it non-copyrighted? Because the film was published without a complete copyright notice.

Having read a little about this, my memory was that some prints of Charade — but not all! — were distributed without without copyright indicia, and I had previously gone on record that I simply couldn’t believe that Universal would endorse remakes of Charade if it didn’t actually control the copyright, that the gazillion chop-shop DVD releases of Charade had to be from prints that left off the copyright notice, that it was a loophole. This was an incorrect reading or understanding of events. Turns out, while it was a technicality, it wasn’t a some-prints-are-protected-some-aren’t glitch. It was much more along the lines of the single misplaced comma that cost Ed Stevens his job, as apparently Universal Pictures published a copyright notice on the film, but did so in a manner that only met two of the three required elements for a statement of copyright in 1963: the claimant, the year, and the word or symbol for copyright. All copies of Charade at the time lacked the last of those elements. And so, according to the copyright cheatsheet from Cornell University, it “fail[ed] to comply with required formalities” and instantly became a work in the public domain. Which was fine for twenty-five years, as most people couldn’t get their hands on an actual 33mm print of Charade to distribute or duplicate it, but the home video market changed that significantly.

So with this new understanding firmly in place, only two quibbles remain: if the soundtrack and script are maintained under separate copyrights, and Peter Stone had maintained his copyright on the screenplay to Charade (or, at least he registered copyright on its original short story version, “The Unsuspecting Wife” in 1961), surely the dialogue quoted in the subtitles is under copyright? Could a film be in the public domain, but the ability to reproduce its dialogue in print not be?

And secondly, am I an unredeemable, pretentious idiot for continually calling the film in question CharAHde instead of CharAIde? The obvious niche benefit of the website this AV Club article was about is that it could help in the production of certain supercuts. I have been slowly collecting a list of different pop-culture examples of the pronunciation of “charade”, (Pro-AHD: The Hour, The 39 Steps, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; pro-AID: The X-Files, NewsRadio, Agent Carter — I’m very disappointed in you, young Jarvis!), but an intital search of QuoDB provides me with more to go and listen to and add to this accounting.

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Your Guide to Popular Culture

22 February, 2015 at 1:02 pm (benjamin, webjunk)

One of these days I’ll actually get around to writing up the complete version of a long-standing musing about the top five writers and documents that most influenced my prosody and thought processes (current version, in chronological order: Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Sherlock Holmes, the Columbia Records version of Marshall MacLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, but that leaves out both Woody Allen and Peter S. Beagle, so that’s no good already…), but perhaps not, because it is a strangely arbitrary idea to limit oneself to a handful of prominent influences, when we are constantly being yo-yo’ed and nudged by the thoughts and gravity of others. Still, it was interesting to stumble across a Vlogbrothers video of John Green reminding himself and his brother Hank of the fast-paced, breathless rants of Ian Shoales, and then engaging in his own musings on how much the Vlogbrothers house style exists in part because of the rat-a-tat delivery and charm of Shoales’ weekly column.

Merle Kessler as Ian Shoales: NPR Promotional HeadshotGreen may have been surprised to dredge Shoales out of the mists of memory, but I think of him quite often. I was introduced to him by a vintage mentor of mine who thought that his acerbic commentary and relentless observation and prodding of popular culture would mirror my own. He had a cassette he’d compiled himself from having taped Shoales’ segments on the radio, collecting them piecemeal over time. I can imagine him with his hands hovering over the controls of a silvered plastic radio, staring back at him with it’s one large, round, corrugated speaker, as he jabbed at the pause and record buttons in order to do that magical thing of capturing the ephemeral. Tape gave you power over the intangible essence of music, it gave you the freedom to replay it whenever you wanted, as well as the ability to share it with others. Radio was crazy. And television was the same way. You had to bend to its whims, and you only were permitted to watch that particular movie at 7pm on a select Friday night or perhaps on a lazy Sunday at 2. If you missed an episode of Saturday Night Live, you had to listen to everyone else talk about it on Monday in order to hear what had happened, and, man, would they talk about it. Constantly. And sure, the song that you liked was in high rotation and would almost certainly play again at the top of the hour, but the waiting and the ads and the Creedence that you had to suffer through in order to hear it again was extraordinarily frustrating.

Kids today, man, with their YouTube bootlegs and their wireless downloads and their gigs upon gigs of digital memory… I roll my eyes at how much time they spend searching for the right song on a computer, and how much of their lives they waste jumping from impulse to impulse as they compulsively playlist their daily scroll of emotions by making sure their angst and boredom and frustration has the right soundtrack at every given moment. But I strike this attitude in part because they will never understand the sheer frustrating idleness of living in a world where you had to be patient enough for media to happen on its own timetable, and the wastrel spending of time in the interim is the crucible that shaped my generational character.

On the other hand, that adolescent digital immediacy is what drove me to find Green’s memorialization of Shoales in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

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Scientific Progress goes “Moo”*

12 May, 2014 at 8:30 pm (comics, webjunk)

Sometimes the internet astonishes me: you put money into it, and you get stuff out of it.

Obviously, this is both most people’s common experience and a completely foreign experience to many. Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Etsy, etc. wouldn’t all exist and thrive if people weren’t putting money into the internet and then receiving something in return. And also a great number of people turn to the internet in order to acquire things without having to spend any money on them. This ranges from the relatively innocuous — MP3s and digitized images — to a significant trade in films, software, books, credit card numbers, and the like. And as much as we use the internet to reinforce our pre-existing worldviews, creating streams of personalized content that provide us with feeds and pings and alerts about the things and people we already like, it is the surprises that drift across that are the most wonderful, the unexpected pleasures.

Chainsaw Vigilante commissions: Erica Henderson, Lars Brown, Katie CookLast summer at the Boston Comic Con, I commissioned sketches from attending artists for the first time. Travis Ellisor had been trumpeting his expanding Karate Kid vs. commission gallery for a little while, and I liked the concept: a single factor of commonality, but the opportunity to allow the artist to also feature his or her chosen creation. (I also have a bit of a soft spot for the classic LoSH Karate Kid, whose solo title was the first comic I actively tried to collect as a kid, saving up for back issues from the archive bins of local stores.) And the final grace note is that the character is a bit odd. Many people have con sketchbooks of obvious corporate populist characters, but finding that odd tertiary character that people fondly recall but haven’t thought about in ages is the real cherry on the sundae. I’d finally decided, after much musing, that my own original sketch collection was going to be different interpretations of The Tick‘s Chainsaw Vigilante engaged in combat with DC Comics’ Ambush Bug. Then I did some research on how much two-figure commissions tended to run, and I decided to start by just getting some drawings of the Chainsaw Vigilante to start with and to work my way up.

So I went to the Con, and I experienced a strange anxiety: I was going to be handed a drawing by the artist, and I was going to have a reaction, right there in real time, of exhilaration or disappointment in the result. In front of the creative person who was asked to interpret a paid command for which he or she may have had no particular artistic inclination. This is a character I like, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire or movie the person drawing it. Would I be able to tell by the composition? Would my face visibly blanch as I took the commissions from their hands?

My Advanced Art teacher in high school often said that she thought the worst thing a person could say was, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.” As willfully ignorant of a statement as that may be, I believe people have strong, instinctive opinions about aesthetics, regardless of their ability to articulate or contextualize them. I think that comics will forever be a minority art form simply because the presentation of the visual narrative either will or will not appeal, aesthetically, to the reader, and one can’t read the story without looking at artwork that either pleases or assaults the eye. Obviously, if one is commissioning a drawing, one would surely only pay out money to an artist whose work one finds appealing, but that still doesn’t mean that the selection of infinite artistic choices made will end up being those one would prefer. Will the drawings be the sort of thing one would automatically reblog in one’s curated stream of aesthetic content, or not?

Luckily, all of my commissions have hit the sweet spot of surprise (which I believe is also a channel on RedTube). They have combined the familiar visual voice of the artist, the comforting content of the form of the character, and the simple act of not being what I would have done. Surely it’s this last misdirect, this last moment of dissonance that is what makes getting something from the hands and minds of other people the most worthwhile, the sudden veering into unpredictability. And while there may be some anxiety about cost and result, the most important bit is that whatever the result it sprang from someone else and is therefore something that would have been impossible for you to acquire or create or establish on your own.

Which is why the internet is wonderful. You put money in, and you get something unexpected out of it. This week I received two commissions: one virtual and one physical. Read the rest of this entry »

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April 18: “THE” Batman

18 April, 2014 at 10:34 pm (batman)

It’s the 75th anniversary of Batman. DC Comics has released a commemorative logo and Warner Brothers has teased a animated homage. There are some variations as to when this should be recognized: Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of “The ‘Bat-Man'”, has a cover date of May 1939, but Bleeding Cool has traced it to a copyright date of March 30 of that same year. However, ComicVine declares that the street date, the day which the March-copyrighted, May-labeled issue of Detective Comics was actually on newsstands was April 18, 1939, and today is that anniversary.

The problem is that, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, while a rose is a rose is a rose, Batman is not Batman is not Batman. The “Bat-Man” is not Batman is not BATMAN™. While criminals were already recognizing the striking profile and showy costume of the “mysterious and adventurous figure” in his first appearance, his appearance, identity, tone, name, age, mission, code, et al. have all changed over the last 75 years.

Detective Comics #27: The 'Bat-Man'

[Bleeding Cool]

People will talk about a character’s staying power, how he is able to maintain relevance over successive generations by being able to be reinterpreted during each age. My contention is that this means the character really isn’t so much a character as a small set of characteristics.
Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m Comin’ Up, So You Better Get This Party Kickstarted…

15 March, 2014 at 10:26 am (benjamin, film, imdblr)

Comedian Doug Benson has a weekly gig called Doug Loves Movies, a trivia show about films that he runs at least partially because of his impressive recall of films he has idly consumed over his personal and professional life — both as a casual audience member and as someone who travels with some frequency and therefore watches a number of films on planes. He occasionally refers to himself as “IMDB”, because he an impressive depository of films and film credits that only the Internet Movie Database could rival, Deep Blue/Watson stylee, and because it allows him to say, “I am DB” — he is Doug Benson. (Not unlike Irwin Maurice Fletcher.)

This is a personal blog, and has been since November 2000, so ego-posting is hardly surprising. And while I (still) don’t (yet) have an entry on IMDB, I have been keeping track of my appearances in various DVD credits, a feat that is much easier to accomplish now that Kickstarter seems to be regularly offering it as a low-impact, high-cost perk for various film projects.

Unlike posts in the past, I haven’t actually made it to the credits of anything new, but I have created my own Doug Benson-inspired tag for this post and for the future: imdblr, or “in movies desperately: benjamin lawrence russell”. And while I haven’t been specifically named in any recent Kickfunded projects, I am thanked as part of a mass in two, appear unbilled in a third, and am thanked in the website credits for a fourth.


THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS (Filmed in 2012, funded for distribution in 2013)

Read the rest of this entry »

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