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Posts Tagged ‘Nick Frost’

Apparently we are all becoming much more discriminating consumers of stuff, no longer so blindly loyal to particular brands, but making informed and intelligent choices. Well, that may be true for some people, but if I made intelligent, discriminating and selective choices I wouldn’t go to the cinema eighty times a year, and where would we all be then?

Certainly, there are some people whose new films I will turn up to almost without fail, regardless of the subject matter, mainly because I’ve consistently enjoyed their stuff in the past. Firmly ensconced on the list of those so favoured are genial Dwayne Johnson and (from a different kind of performance tradition) fabulous Florence Pugh. Get these two together and I will be there like a shot, even if the movie involved is a womens’-wrestling-themed comedy-drama biopic, not something I would necessarily want to go anywhere near.

Actually, don’t bother, for all of this has already occurred, in the form of Stephen ‘Goggle-eyed Freak’ Merchant’s Fighting with My Family. The pairing of Florence and Dwayne looks almost natural when set against the highly peculiar group financing this film, which includes MGM, the usually-credible British company Film 4, and a major wrestling-entertainment corporation. It all makes a certain form of sense when you consider the story.

Fabulous Florence plays Saraya Knight, part of a family of wrestlers – go with it – operating the ‘World Association of Wrestling’ in Norwich, England. Her father (Nick Frost) is an alcoholic former armed robber who credits his discovery of wrestling with giving him a positive outlet for his violent tendencies, but on the whole they are a positive and loving family (when they are not clobbering seven bells out of each other in the ring, anyway).

Opportunity knocks when Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are given the chance to try out for – let me check – something called ‘the WWE’, which is apparently a wrestling-entertainment company. There they meet gruff but wise coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and passing superstar Dwayne Johnson (Dwayne Johnson).  Saraya, wrestling under the name of Paige, makes the cut and is signed for the youth wing of the WWE – but Zak is left totally despondent when he is not selected. Saraya flies off to Florida to train with the rest of the wannabes, leaving her brother in despair. Can she make it to the top of the pile in the WWE? Can her relationship with her family take the accompanying strain?

As you can perhaps discern, there is rather more of Florence than of Dwayne in this movie – a sizeable percentage of Johnson’s on-screen contribution (he also produced it) is in the trailer – but the big man’s scenes are as charismatic and funny as you might expect. For most of the rest of the movie the comic heavy lifting is done by Nick Frost, who fully deploys his always-impressive ability to steal scenes: he even has a good try at upstaging genial Dwayne, which is no mean feat.

The trailer for this movie certainly focuses on some of the more comedic scenes, and with a director like Merchant – still really best known as a comedian, despite more dramatic appearances in more recent films – you might certainly expect this to be light, (perhaps literally) knockabout stuff, playing up the general absurdity of entertainment-wrestling.

However, this expectation would fail to take into account the involvement of the real-life WWE in the making of this film: entertainment-wrestling is their meal ticket, and it is not to be mocked or satirised in the slightest. Instead, what we end up with is essentially a fairly formulaic sports movie with added funny bits here and there. As such it requires proper acting to really work – and fortunately, it gets it, from Pugh, Vaughn and Lowden. These are really actors playing stock characters in a formulaic story, but they do so with skill, and the more dramatic scenes of the film do have a surprising degree of heft to them.

Dramatic is not necessarily synonymous with truthful or authentic, of course, and even as I was watching this movie I found myself growing rather suspicious of the story it was telling me, simply because it fits rather too well into the underdog-makes-good narrative arc. Even the most cursory research indicates that the film’s connection with reality doesn’t extend very much further than the fact that there is indeed a wrestler from Norwich who used to fight under the nom de canvas Paige. 

On the other hand, the film is fairly honest about the sheer amount of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in American entertainment-wrestling, and the ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving nature of the machine – it chews people up and spits them out, and there are always fresh volunteers to replace them.

Of course, the film doesn’t exactly state this in so many words, and its depiction of entertainment-wrestling in general and the WWE in particular is essentially benign. The main problem with Fighting with My Family as a sports movie comes from the fact it concerns something which is – I’m going to have to take shelter in the bunker again – not actually a real sport. Paige’s rise to success in the WWE is secured after her defeat of another fighter, which the film depicts as a tense struggle resulting in an against the odds victory. When, as even the film admits, there are few things in the world less in doubt than the result of a wrestling-entertainment bout. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the WWE makes a lot of money out of treating its fans as idiots, but at this point it felt like the movie was doing so to me, and I do not find that easy to forgive.

Still, the contrast between Norwich (sweaty church halls, dingy gyms, and New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and Florida (much better hair and teeth) is fun, and it is solidly if predictably structured and generally well played – although Florence Pugh barely needs to get into third gear to ace her character; you can tell she has many more just waiting to be deployed when she gets to headline a film with a bit more nuance to it.

Wrestling fans will probably find Fighting with My Family rather more captivating than I did (there were quite a few, mostly old ladies, in the screening with me, all cheering and expressing sympathy in the right places), but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot. Maybe there is a bit less Dwayne Johnson than I would have expected, but there are lots of other enjoyable elements, even if as a whole it doesn’t entirely ring true. But hey – that’s entertainment-wrestling.   

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Yet another new Vue this week, readers: I know, I know. I was all set to check out the Everyman on Baker Street, but then I had a couple of hours to spare, wandered over to Leicester Square, and found out that if I just spent the afternoon there I could enjoy a couple of new movies and a tasty Mexican-inflected burger-based meal. The only downside was that one of the movies had to be at the Leicester Square Vue, but there you go. This does at least seem to be as nice as any other Vue (which is to say, quite nice in most respects), and Leicester Square is a fun place to go to the cinema. I note that weird, costume-wearing Frenchies have already started queueing to see The Lone Ranger, a film so blatantly and painfully misconceived that it’s currently 50-50 as to whether I go to see it at all (and this is from someone who paid to watch Battleship and After Earth). Hey ho.

Anyway, the film I saw at the Leicester Square Vue was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, his latest re-teaming with writer and star Simon Pegg (not to mention co-star Nick Frost). To briefly recap, after making an name for themselves in TV, these boys scored a bit of a hit with the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead – still pretty much the gold standard when it comes to funny zombie films – and also did rather well with the 2007 comedy action pastiche Hot Fuzz (a film I personally find somewhat less accomplished, but still bags of fun). Then Pegg and Frost went off to make Paul with someone else, a film which did quite well though it wasn’t particularly great, and Wright went off and made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film which didn’t do very well even though it was quite good.

Now here they are again, with what’s being advertised as the final instalment of a trilogy – helps with the marketing, I suppose, because in terms of story the three films are completely separate, not even taking place in the same genre.

The-Worlds-End-poster

This time round Pegg plays Gary King, a highly dubious and unreliable character, who at the start of the film is intent on reuniting the gang of his teenage years. Frost plays his best friend Andy, while comprising the rest of the crew are Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman. Many years ago this bunch set out to complete an epic pub crawl in their home town, but failed: now Gary is insisting they give it another try.

However, the freewheeling teenagers of decades before have grown up to be lawyers, estate agents, and so on, and even getting everyone back together is a challenge. Slowly the realisation dawns that Gary himself hasn’t appreciably grown up at all, and the question of exactly what his motivation for this reunion is becomes increasingly pressing.

Several pubs into the crawl, of course, things take a rather different and unexpected turn, as does the tone of the film. This does rather come out of nowhere, if you haven’t seen the trailer anyway, but suffice to say that, as usual, what started as a comedy turns into a different sort of genre movie entirely…

I seem to recall being instinctively well-disposed towards Shaun of the Dead when it came out in 2004, mainly because I’d met Simon Pegg the year before and he turned out to be one of the good guys. (Pegg’s rise to something approaching bona fide moviestardom since then has been gratifying.) I find myself equally inclined to say nice things about The World’s End, but again I am unsure whether this is simply due to the quality of the film, or the fact it seems precision-aimed at me as its target audience.

Because this is essentially a film about looking down the barrel of forty, realising your youth is all but over, and coming to terms with the fact that the past is past. All the characters have done this except Gary, and the emotional arc of the film is about how this affects their relationships. There is inevitably a good deal of nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s, which is reflected in one of the most evocative and memorable soundtracks I can recall: Blur, the Stone Roses, the Soup Dragons, Suede, they are all here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story winds up hitting a few emotional notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mainstream comedy film, but I found this just made the film more engaging. Certainly, I went to see The World’s End looking forward to the genre element of the story, but found myself enjoying the character-based comedy-drama much more. In addition to sharp and witty dialogue, there is also some well-executed slapstick and a brilliant gag about the plague of homogenous gastro-ification sweeping British pubs.

This is not to say that the other stuff is by any means bad, of course: it’s smartly written and immaculately assembled, with some superbly inventive action choreography along the way (even if the unarmed combat skills displayed by virtually every character seem a little implausible). But by the climax, one almost gets a sense of the film itself having had a couple of pints too many – things become just a touch out of control and silly, though not enough to spoil proceedings. (It’s definitely a stretch to claim the film is on some level an homage to Wyndham or Youd, as some publicity materials are claiming.) The conclusion, though fairly logical, seemed to me to be distinctly odd and tonally rather at odds with the way the rest of the film had been going.

Nevertheless, this is still a quality piece of work, as you would expect from the assembled talent involved in making it. Given the A-Team of actors involved, the only real surprise is Nick Frost’s continued ability to steal scenes apparently without effort. Doing that when you’re sharing the frame with Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman (often all at the same time) is a really remarkable talent. Frost might also want to consider branching out into action movies: he shows considerable potential in this department. Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan also pop up in key roles: there’s something weird about the fact that not much more than a decade ago it was perfectly okay for the two of them to get it on in a movie, but now he’s being cast as her former schoolteacher. Typically strange cinema attitudes to ageing, I suppose.

The World’s End is very much of a piece with the two other Wright/Pegg/Frost films in the way it combines comedy-drama with genre pastiche, but it isn’t afraid to try some new things – the roles played by the two leads are effectively reversed, while there’s less of a focus on their relationship and more of an ensemble feel to the film. For the most part, this works, and if this really does turn out to be the last time these three work together, they are concluding their relationship on a high. The World’s End is consistently very funny, frequently moving, and often rather exciting. A great piece of intelligent entertainment, and one of the best films of the summer so far.

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Okay, we may as well get this out of the way before we go any further: most people’s point of reference for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is going to be Shaun of the Dead. It’s not as if the film even shies away from this much: ‘from the producers of…’ features prominently on the poster, Edgar Wright is involved, Nick Frost has a hefty cameo role and the film is, essentially, a similar kind of stylistic mash-up. But, and I’m being up front about this, if you go in expecting a film as deft and witty and smart as Shaun then you won’t be doing yourself, or Attack the Block, any favours, because where the 2004 movie felt like a brilliant discovery, this is more some sort of bizarre oddity.

The film opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home one Bonfire Night. She lives in a tower block on a desolate London council estate and soon finds herself facing a fairly grim scenario as she is surrounded and mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths. Then things become somewhat less predictable and rather more surprising as a ball of fire falls from the sky and disgorges a slavering, clawed, ferocious creature.

Sam runs and in a slightly queasy narrative lurch the gang of muggers become the protagonists, as they kill the thing and carry away its remains as a trophy. But it soon becomes apparent that the fireball was only the first of many, and more – containing considerably more dangerous luminously-toothed gorilla-wolves – are landing all over the neighbourhood. The gang aren’t about to let any bunch of extraterrestrial monsters muscle in on their turf and quickly tool themselves up as the aliens prepare to attack the block they live in…

Quite by chance I caught a showing of this movie with subtitles, and in retrospect this may have been a good thing as nearly all the characters are a generation younger than me and speak in a street patois I am not particularly fluent in. I have no way of being sure, but it certainly seemed to me that the movie was doing a good job of giving an authentic impression of the dead-end culture the main characters have grown up within. Having said that, this is clearly the work of someone quite well-versed in the SF genre – the gang reside in Wyndham Tower, overlooking Ballard Street (amongst others), and while the movie doesn’t directly reference either writer (except perhaps Ballard’s High Rise, and then only tangentially) it was a nice reference.

But most importantly, Joe Cornish definitely seems to have chops as a film director. I was startled, years ago, to hear he and Edgar Wright had been retained to write a script for Marvel Studios, but on the strength of this they should snap him up as a solo act – he has a sure eye for the kind of cinematic flourish that really makes Attack the Block look like it belongs on the big screen. Rather in the way that Richard Ayoade seems to have assimilated the sensibility of American indie and produced his own version of it, so Cornish has done the same with a more mainstream, action-oriented style.

Given Cornish’s background as a performer – not to mention the presence in this film of Nick Frost, who demonstrates his usual monumental ability to steal scenes – you might expect this to be a rather broader comedy than it is. There are a few laughs along the way, to be sure, but this is really a…

Uh, well, I may have to get back to you on that one, because… well, if this movie is primarily intended as an action movie, it has a serious problem practically from the first scene. This is because most of the main characters are initially introduced as violent muggers and as a result almost impossible to sympathise with or root for (for me, anyway). It may be the idea that as time goes by we’re intended to forget how we first met the gang, or that the circumstances of the alien incursion are sufficiently serious to justify our overlooking the fact they’re vicious thugs – but the film never quite pulls this trick off.

And I get the impression Cornish is aware of this and it’s something he’s done deliberately, almost as a challenge to the audience. It would, after all, be easy enough to have started the film differently, omitted the mugging, and avoided this whole problem. If it’s not deliberate then it’s a major mis-step on his part.

I suspect it was a calculated move, as when it’s not being a rather 2000AD-ish action movie Attack the Block seems to want to say serious things about gang culture and wasted young lives in British inner-cities. But exactly what these things are I couldn’t quite make out, beyond a few very obvious points hammered home without a great deal of subtlety – ‘Actions have consequences,’ someone says at one point, rather labouring the issue.

When it comes to youth gang members – ‘hoodies’, as we rather charmingly used to refer to them – most films either mindlessly glamourise them, reflexively demonise them, or treat them much more thoughtfully as damaged, broken people, the product of their environment. At various points Attack the Block does all three, which is a neat trick. Whether it serves the story or not is another matter.

John Boyega does a bang-up job of portraying Moses, leader of the gang, and does succeed in giving him depth as a character (some of the other young performers are ever so slightly am-dram). But you don’t go to a knockabout action movie about aliens to get soul-searching and social comment, just as you don’t go to see a drama about the awful lives of dead-end kids on council estates looking for action sequences with CGI nasties (if there’s a social metaphor involved in the alien incursion storyline, I can’t discern what it is). Cornish has succeeded in fusing together two genres with absolutely nothing in common in terms of tone or audience expectations.

Once again, it’s a neat trick, but I’m not sure who exactly is going to find this movie a completely satisfying experience. It’s an extremely well-made and well-directed film, and a major calling card for Joe Cornish, but to completely enjoy it I think you would have to identify with the central characters to a degree of which I’m simply not capable: and while that’s partly a simple issue of fact, it’s also a result of the script. I’m loath to describe any film as being too clever for its own good, but Attack the Block may be just that.

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The rise of Simon Pegg to genuine movie stardom has been a source of vicarious (not to mention slightly ridiculous) pleasure to me. I mean, I’ve met Pegg once, about eight years ago, and we spoke for five minutes at the absolute most. But he’s a thoroughly nice bloke (or at least he was prior to making Shaun of the Dead) and it’s been nice to see him get on, both as the lead performer in his own films and the comic relief in blockbusters (some hard-core Trekkies may disagree).

 

Currently enjoying a high-profile release in the UK is Pegg’s new film, Paul, directed by Greg Mottola. In it, Pegg and regular sparring partner Nick Frost play Graeme and Paul, a couple of British SF and UFO fans on a visit to the San Diego comic-con followed by a tour of places in the south-west USA like Area 51 and Roswell. The trip takes an unexpected turn when they witness a road accident, the driver involved being – well, the titular Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is also visiting the US, but from rather further afield: he’s an alien who’s been stranded on Earth since 1947 and is on the run from the government who’ve been holding him prisoner ever since. Paul recruits Graeme and Clive to give him a lift to a spot where his ride home will shortly be arriving – can they get him there while avoiding the relentless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), a bona fide Man in Black?

Hmmm. Having gone to a number of SF conventions in my time, and fairly recently returned from my own road trip through the south-west US, I felt a definite affinity for Paul right from the start. However, even this did not disguise the fact that, compared to Shaun or Hot Fuzz (which are surely going to be most people’s points of reference), this movie is a little bit disappointing.

It’s by no means a total failure – I laughed a lot, and I feel obliged to mention that many people at the same screening as me were laughing considerably more than me. But there are long stretches where the laughs-per-minute ratio drops fairly drastically, and some of those were born as much of recognition as genuine amusement. It’s a very likeable film, just not hilarious.

One assumes this is partly due to the absence of Edgar Wright, director and co-writer of Shaun and Fuzz, who was off making Scott Pilgrim at the time. In his place, Mottola does a very decent job as a director, but the script – co-written by Pegg and Frost – is just a touch shapeless, lacking in structural rigour, focus and wit. The comedy’s a little too broad and repetitive, and the scenes attempting to evoke genuine pathos feel forced and intrusive. Even the plethora of nudge-wink references to other films don’t raise the smiles they should – some of them are a little obvious and heavy-handed, and at least one of them is painfully cheesy. (The central idea that SF fans are also likely to be Flying Saucer people is also… well, while it’s central to the script, it ain’t necessarily so, and Simon Pegg knows as much.)

One element of the script which actively annoyed me was a subplot about a character named Ruth (played by Kristen Wiig) who gets picked up along the way. Ruth is initially an uptight creationist, but meeting Paul causes her to lose her faith and become (essentially) a foul-mouthed thrill-seeking hedonist. Nothing wrong with that idea in principle, but to begin with Ruth’s written as a one-dimensional caricature, a militant atheist’s idea of what a Christian fundamentalist is like. And then she turns into a Christian fundamentalist’s idea of what an atheist is like. At no point does she ring true as an actual person. I don’t have a problem with people pointing out the (extremely numerous) flaws in Biblical creationism as a world-view (I’ll happily do so myself at the drop of a hat), but Paul‘s treatment of this is basically to take a few cheap shots at an easy target.

As well as co-writing the script, Nick Frost also finds himself promoted to, effectively, joint lead in this film. Frost’s ability to steal scenes from much more experienced performers, often with not much more than a line or two, is formidable, but he’s much less effective when it comes to carrying large sections of the film himself, as he does here. This also means that Simon Pegg, a genuinely gifted actor as well as a great comic, has fewer chances to shine. To choose a metaphor they’d appreciate, Pegg and Frost are like Han and Chewbacca: a great double-act, but one of them’s much better at long dialogue scenes than the other.

I’m being quite critical of Paul, but the fact remains that I enjoyed watching it and by no means felt I’d wasted my time or money. Pegg is always very watchable, Seth Rogen delivers a great vocal performance as the title character, and Jason Bateman plays it commendably straight as the man on our heroes’ trail. (Sue from Glee turns up in a slightly alarming wig, too.) Compared to most comedies, Paul is smart and warm and – above all – funny, and it’s only in comparison with Pegg and Frost’s previous work that it falls a little short of expectations.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 15th 2004: 

Hello again everyone, and you see before you the writings of a relieved man. It’s always a risky proposition to go to the cinema expecting that the evening’s film will be a marvel, a triumph, a joy to behold, because then even if it turns out to be only ‘not that bad after all’, it’ll still on some level be a disappointment. That goes double when you feel a personal loyalty, however slight or unwarranted, towards someone involved with the project. And when said project is a British comedy film, a genre with a frankly dodgy track record of late, well, you’re not exactly doing yourself any favours…

The source of all this angst is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies in it) co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg. I bumped into Pegg (he said nonchalantly) last summer just as filming was about to get under way and asked him how the film was coming on. Now I’m going to sound biased and soppy here but he really was quite extraordinarily friendly and genuine towards a total stranger. Ever since then I’ve been looking forward to the movie and desperately hoping I could write nice things about it…

And I can! Given all of the above, you would be right to question my objectivity, but this is a great, witty, pacy film – a hilarious comedy that also manages to be an astonishingly grim horror film. It’s the story of Shaun (Pegg) a coming-up-to-thirty guy whose life has never quite clicked into gear, mainly due to his own laziness. Wanting him to make something of his life is his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), while holding him back is his slovenly flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). As the film opens, Liz finally tires of her relationship with Shaun solely taking place in their local pub, and goaded on by her flatmates (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) insists that things change.

Shaun being Shaun, he mucks it up and she chucks him. Will he be able to win her back? Will he be able to resolve his relationships with his mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy)? Will his life finally get into gear? And will the sudden collapse of society as a zombie apocalypse gets underway have any impact on all these things?

Pegg and Wright are probably best known for Channel 4’s hyper-hip and knowing sitcom Spaced, and a lot of reviewers are basically describing this as Spaced: The Movie. Well, there’s something to be said for that, as nearly all the Spaced gang are present and correct here: in addition to Pegg, Frost, and Wright, Jessica Stevenson has a small but crucial role, and Julia Deakin has a timy cameo. But for all that, the style is very different – Shaun has none of Spaced‘s genre spoofs or knowing film references (with the exception of a brief but gleefully vicious sideswipe at 28 Days Later). Wright’s direction is fluid and intelligent without being overexcitable, and he handles the build-up well.

By this I mean that Shaun seems to start off as a fairly generic British relationship comedy – with the startling anomaly that nearly all the jokes are actually funny – about the troubled personal lives of twentysomething people. But gradually, other elements start to appear – odd news reports play in the background and are ignored by all the characters, and extras begin behaving very oddly indeed, until finally the film tips over into true horror territory and the dead begin to prey upon the living in earnest.

The balancing act between humour and horror is elegantly achieved, with only a few scenes uncertain in tone. It’s such a gradual shift that when the film suddenly reaches a very dark place and principal characters start meeting very sticky ends indeed – depicted, by the way, entirely straight – it’s a genuine shock and it all seems much more harrowing as a result. These moments have more genuine emotion than most proper horror films can muster. This is partly due to a cast almost entirely made up of performers best known for playing comedy – in retrospect, a brilliant ploy. Seeing an anonymous American leading man graphically eviscerated and devoured on screen is no more than one would expect – but when it happens to a performer one subconsciously associates with cuddly comedy dramas or quirky sitcoms, it feels like such a deviation from the norm that it is genuinely appalling and horrific.

And in a funny way Shaun of the Dead is much closer in tone to George Romero’s original Dead trilogy than a certain big-budget remake reviewed in these pages only a fortnight ago. This is partly because Shaun‘s zombies are shambling, easily-underestimated semi-competents, rather than snarling athletes, but mainly because the film uses them as a metaphor for the drone-like existence many people in this country lead all the time (it’s quite hard to tell the dead apart from the living at first, and later on Shaun and his friends settle upon the local pub as their sanctuary as the crisis deepens, only to discover all the zombies are instinctively going there too). There’s also a Romero-ish quality to the desperate bickering within the group as the dead close in around them, and an outright (if subtle) steal in the suggestion that contamination from a space probe is actually responsible for the zombie phenomenon.

Smartly written, played, and directed, and making an impressive success of both the genres it attempts, Shaun of the Dead is a treat that will renew the faith in cinema of anyone unlucky enough to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The undead subject matter may put you off – but I beg you not to be dissuaded. This film may have cult classic written all over it, but it deserves a much wider audience, and much wider success, than that. Highly recommended.

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