Friday Flix

A Potpourri of Movie Reviews

Here we go, a Friday roundup of some of what I’ve enjoyed over the past week/month or two… next week at Myrant: All Comics & Comix!

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Now in Theaters:

* “I do not like thee Doctor Feld/the reason why I cannot tell…”

Well, Tommy Lee Jones‘s character does not like Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), but maybe you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as we were how well the doc does.

There’s geezer films that I would have avoided as a youngin’ (Space Cowboys, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc.), and this is one of ‘em: HOPE SPRINGS (2012; no relation to the 2003 British film or 2009 BBC series). Marge and I had a grand afternoon out with it over Labor Day Weekend, and for us, it was an ideal impulse date movie.

TV writer Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones, Cupid, etc.) crafted a script both leisurely and well-crafted, David Frankel‘s direction is solid, but with Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell as the ensemble cast (Carell the therapist, Jones & Streep the stuck-in-a-31-year-rut married couple), it all sang pretty well for us; Marge had a good cry, always a good sign. I should also mention that, without being sexually explicit at any point, Hope Springs puts some intimate moments on the screen between Streep and Jones I never thought I’d see!

Tough to recommend, though—I mean, we’re still plenty in love, so this was a love/life-affirming outing for us, but if someone had steered me to this during separation/divorce back in the late 1990s (if this movie had existed then), I’d have killed the messenger.

So, well, there ya go. We cozied right up to it, as it did to us. Despite the misleading marketing, it’s not a comedy—it’s a sobering, direct character drama, with a rich sense of humor. Sweet little movie, all in all.

and I’m in full agreement with Roger, who reminded me, too, about the too-often-intrusive musical score. As I’ve said before here on my blog and elsewhere, I loathe this current (well, since the 1990s) practice in mainstream films of adopting the Dawson’s Creek model of “here’s a pop song to cue for you precisely what this character is feeling at this moment…” Ugh. It really drives me out of the movie and up the wall. The Annie Lennox tune in particular was completely out of place: I mean, at least pick music from Streep/Jones‘s characters experience (oh, ya, they act/look like former Annie Lennox fans). Some movies thrust me out of them entirely using this much-abused device—the last Twilight film, which I otherwise found pretty astonishing, really pissed me off in that department, and some (Vanilla Sky) fail completely as films due in part to this odious emotional crutch. The great Bernard Herrmann attacked this scoring device in its infancy back in 1964 (and it in fact was a deciding factor in his split with Alfred Hitchcock, over Torn Curtain, due to Universal and Hitchcock insisting upon a “song”), and its only gotten worse since the legitimate, artistic invention/adoption of the device by Kenneth Anger with underground films like Scorpio Rising (1964). Anger used the overlay of pop tunes ironically and artistically, not as a telegraph service; following Anger‘s lead, filmmakers like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), John Waters (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos), and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) began to use it in the 1960s and 1970s in increasingly mainstream feature films, and—well, here we are. There’s effective use of the device, and the kind of abuse that kept pulling me out of enjoying Hope Springs—point made, I trust.

[Revised and expanded from a September 3, 2012 Facebook posting.]

* I stepped into a late afternoon matinee of LAWLESS (2012) without knowing anything about the movie. Holy shit. Along with BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012; though I hasten to add, the two films couldn’t be more unlike one another), it’s the best American narrative movie of the year I’ve lucked into thus far.

Precision-crafted by director John Hillcoat working from a nuanced, fine-tuned script by Nick Cave (!!!) based on Matt Bondurant‘s novel The Wettest County in the World—chronicling the 1931-1933 exploits of his grandfather and great-uncles in the notorious Franklin County, Virginia moonshine “wars”—the location filming and sense of time, people, and place lends absolute conviction and gravitas to Lawless.

Better yet, the terrific ensemble cast (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, and Dane DeHaan) establish and maintain their own unassuming rhythms and stick to ‘em. This devotion and adherence to its characters and its own internal rhythms is the film’s heart, soul, and strength, fine-tuned by the collaborative score by Nick Cave and violinist Warren Ellis (comprised, in part, by a few vintage white lightning ballads along the way, the best of which graces the final credits).

It’s rare to find this kind of pace and penetration in a contemporary American theatrical film; it’s deceptively leisurely, building a cumulative weight and drive unusual in the current cinematic landscape. It’s a form of devotion, really, a trust (in itself, its characters, its audience) similar to that in Debra Granik‘s Winter’s Bone (2010), which Lawless also evokes—well, need I say more?

Can I call this an American film? Aussie Hillcoat (Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, 1988; The Road, 2009) previously collaborated with screenwriter Cave and Guy Pearce on the lean, mean, terrific outback western The Proposition (2005), which was likewise graced with a musical score by Cave and Ellis; this is a less brutal film while remaining absolutely unflinching, less caustic but no less lean.

Having cut my teeth as a lad on constant TV showings of the great Robert Mitchum‘s classic Thunder Road (1958) and, once I had my driver’s license, a steady drive-in diet of moonshine double-features (the best of which remains Lamont Johnson‘s The Last American Hero, 1973, based on the life of NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, and the ruthless Buford Pusser biopic Walking Tall, also 1973, directed by the great Phil Karlson), Lawless pulled me in and wrapped me up like few recent theatrical films have or could.

I don’t want to say anything more—just, go see it. Highest recommendation, but not for the squeamish; it’s graphic without being exploitative or exploitation, but it’s stern stuff.

* THE POSSESSION (2012) is the latest in the procession of possession flicks (and I count the Paranormal Activity series in that number). This entry in the sweepstakes is handily helmed by Danish genre vet Ole Bornedal (Nattevagten / Nightwatch, 1994, and its 1997 US remake) and produced by the Sam Raimi / Robert Tapert Ghost House team. I had a good time with it, which is more than I can say for a lot the recent Exorcist wannabes (with the exception of the Paranormal Activity flicks, which I’ve enjoyed as meditative—oh, never mind); at least Bornedal, Raimi, and Tapert start by presuming we’ve seen every fucking Exorcist wannabe before theirs instead of pretending they’ve invented anything, and riff on the template without wasting our time or their own.

So, then, instead of waiting for days to get to something, the cards are on the table in the first five minutes and then we’re off and running.

it turns out that The Possession hasn’t a thing to do with Der Dibuk / The Dybbuk (1937); truth to tell, Terence Fisher and Hammer Films mounted more of a remake of Der Dibuk with the now-classic Frankenstein Created Woman (1966). The Possession is actually an Amityville Horror spin, of a kind. Just replace that possessed lamp in Sandor Stern‘s Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes aka Amityville 4 (1989, which went direct-to-TV here in the states) with a Dybbuk box, and you’ve got the picture.

See, a Dybbuk box pops up at a yard sale, and the little girl who gravitates to it (Natasha Calis, giving a magnificent performance) is thereafter demon-fodder. That’s it. Period. Then, of course, the shit flies.

I don’t need to tick off the necessary high points, do I? Let’s see: divorced parents, check; croaking li’l girl vocals, check; creepy insect fuggums (here, moths supplant Amityville’s flies), check; etc. They’re all here in a PG-13 laundered outing, sans the heretical/sexualized transgressive punch of The Exorcist or its rankest 1970s imitators, but with a nifty twist or two from Raimi/Tapert‘s prior assimilation (as producers of the American versions) of Takashi Shimizu‘s 呪怨 / Juon / The Grudge entries (oh, them ghosty-fingers-be-more-intimately-intrusive-than-ever-before…).

Then, it’s devoted Jewish scholar Tzadok (musician Matisyahu) to the rescue, proving himself far more effective than priests Rod Steiger or James Olson were in the Amityvilles—and truth to tell, Matisyahu pretty much saved the day for this viewer, too, though the whole cast is pretty damned good.

I had an OK time with The Possession. I had some fun, but that’s not a recommendation per se; as the noncommital NY Times TV capsule reviews used to say, “your move.”

PS: On Facebook, my amigos Tim Paxton and Joe Citro had an interesting, relevant exchange. Tim noted, “I’m surprised that the releasing company hasn’t pushed/promoted the assumed ‘curse’ that afflicts the actual Dybbuk Box. Apparently, according to a podcast I listen to, folks just have to hear that the Dybbuk Box is being discussed on radio and bad things happen to them. Missed opportunity.” And Joe Citro came back with,

The Dybbuk has been an ongoing story there. Very interesting indeed. I wonder if the whole thing has been in preparation for the movie, like the scary and creative ‘this-is-on-the-level’ campaign that led up to The Blair Witch Project…”

Maybe so, Joe! Thanks for that, guys; Joe has also pointed out to me the title’s (obvious, but I didn’t catch it) play on words: The Possession refers as much to the box as “a possession” as it does the act of demonic/spiritual possession. Neat, that, and true.

[Revised and expanded from a September 3, 2012 Facebook posting.]

* As a constant fan of David Koepp‘s films as director (his screenwriter credits, not so much), especially the underrated Trigger Effect (1996) and the excellent Richard Matheson adaptation A Stir of Echoes (1999), I made sure I caught a budget matinee of PREMIUM RUSH (2012), and I’m glad I did.

The set-up is simplicity itself: New York City bicycle messenger Joseph Gordon-Levitt (excellent, as always) takes on a rush delivery of an envelope to a Chinatown location; suspicious-acting cop Michael Shannon (who blew me away in the excellent Take Shelter last year) wants that envelope. That’s all you need to know. I’m not saying anything more about the plot.

Koepp is a sharp storyteller and filmmaker, which is why I love his films and never miss ‘em when they’re in the theaters (which is, almost without exception, a fleeting release, at best). Rarer than ever since 2000, this is a mainstream thriller that entices, engages, and moves, mounting a real sense of urgency and danger without resorting to sadism or malice—Shannon‘s cop is danger incarnate, but Koepp and Shannon make his malice everpresent without allowing it to define the film itself, or the experience. Though I don’t think anyone has evoked these precursors—because the trappings, tempo, and tones of Premium Rush aren’t in any way like the films I’m about to mention—I had the kind of fun with this film that audiences used to with films like North by Northwest, Charade, etc.: genuinely likable characters caught up in trouble not of their own making, threatened by genuinely dangerous characters whose lethal intentions are vividly depicted without souring the entertainment to be savored. In this, Premium Rush is as Hitchcockian a film as we’ve had in some time, though again, I hasten to assert that it’s nothing like any Hitchcock film ever made (for one thing, Koepp‘s winding-back-time narrative structure, de rigueur since Pulp Fiction, may owe a debt to Vertigo, but it’s otherwise antithetical to Hitch‘s preference for linear narratives being religiously adhered to).

In a neat twist on the “forensic cross-sectionals” of so much crime cinema and TV since the 1990s, Koepp introduces and beautifully utilizes Gordon-Levitt‘s visual “what if” internal charting of potential paths in his immediate future: “if I go this way through traffic, here’s what will happen—but if I go this way, this will happen…” It’s a brilliant conceit set up with an ingenious orchestration of Gordon-Levitt‘s use of his cell phone to chart delivery routes with Koepp expanding such familiar real-world application of handheld GPS devices into omniscient full-screen diagram/maps of the city from overhead: a seamless instant and absolutely visual expansion of Gordon-Levitt‘s internal visualization of potential routes to our perception of the city, his routes, and the movie itself. Like I said, Koepp is one sharp cookie, and this is unpretentious, razor-sharp filmmaking.

This is a delicious, streamlined suspense film unlike almost all of the action-suspense films made by studios at present. It’s kinetic without being frantic, exciting without straining credibility, lightweight but completely engaging; a taut, tight, ever-modest thriller: the kind of Hollywood movies I love. It’s also the best of Koepp‘s directorial efforts to date, and for me, that means a lot.

FYI, my longtime pal Rick Veitch used to be a bike messenger (in San Francisco), which means I’d best recommend this to him.

[Revised and expanded from a September 2, 2012 Facebook posting.]

On DVD:

* Bobcat Goldthwait‘s GOD BLESS AMERICA (2011) is his latest pitch-black satire, and though it’s glib and shallow, it’s the sad, hilarious, troubling 21st century spin on the 1957-58 Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate shooting spree Bobcat clearly intended it to be. Sharper than Shakes the Clown (1992, which is a personal favorite) but not as solid as World’s Greatest Dad (2006), suffice to say Bobcat is really making movies now and really telling a story.

Joel Murray stars as sadsack, estranged divorcee vet whose worst-ever-day (noisy neighbors/sleepless night culminates in preteen daughter refusing to visit on his single dad weekend, sexual harassment accusation at work losing him his job, and he’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor) and overload of reality TV (he’s not addicted to cable, he’s trying to drown out his neighbors) at the nanosecond he’s ready to blow his brains out sends him on the road to mete out targeted mayhem. That act lands him in cahoots with sociopathic teen (Tara Lynne Barr), which both escalates and refines Murray‘s spree, and thereby hangs the tale.

Unlike Kick-Ass, God Bless America confronts its own pathology head-on (including its central relationship) and is the richer for that, evoking Pretty Poison and Election in its characterization of Barr‘s Roxy once she seizes the reins. This relatively incisive time capsule of our collective now and Goldthwaite’s spew/spin on contemporary American madness indeed echoes multiple precursors—Starkweather and Fugate (and the films that spiraled from that case: The Sadist, Badlands, Natural Born Killers), Noel Black‘s Pretty Poison, John Waters‘s Female Trouble, Scorsese/Schrader‘s Taxi Driver, Lumet/Chayefksy‘s Network, Schumacher‘s Falling Down, etc.—but Goldthwait, Murray, and Barr take it to another & absolutely its own level. It’s a messy, opportunistic film, in its way, but I found it a pretty potent outing.

A contemporary and companion piece of sorts to Simon Rumley‘s harrowing Red White & Blue and Kevin Smith‘s Red State, it’s also an often dead-on lance of the insane saturation of caustic sensation-soup and mean-spirited showboating we’re steeping in daily.

[Revised and expanded from a July 13, 2012 Facebook posting.]
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Lovecraftian Cinema:

* How did I ignore this movie for so long? I reckon my natural aversion to Jerry Warren movies might explain it. Warren, for those who don’t recognize the name, was among the most notorious of all American import specialists in the 1950s and 1960s; he habitually hacked apart his acquisitions and supplanted cut narrative footage with seemingly interminable new material featuring genre name players (John Carradine, Bruno VeSota, etc.) delivering non-stop purple-prose dialogue and/or narration guaranteed to put late-night TV viewers into comas.

Jerry Warren‘s CREATURE OF THE WALKING DEAD (1965) is no exception—and it is indeed an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of some historic value, carved (as only Warren could or would have) from Fernando Cortés (co-writer/director) and Alfredo Varela, Jr. (co-writer/adaptation)’s La Marca del Muerto (1961), from a story by José María Fernández Unsáin (credited as José Mª Fernandez Unsain) essentially lifted from Lovecraft‘s novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Cortés/Varela/Unsáin‘s adaptation was the first of its kind, and arguably the first “genuine” Lovecraft feature: Roger Corman and Charles Beaumont‘s adaptation of the same novel hit American theaters two years later—as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace (August 1963)—and Jerry Warren‘s cut-and-paste hash confection Creature of the Walking Dead was unleashed two years after that (June 1965). Got that?

Forget about the star credits on Warren‘s abomination—the real star of the film is Fernando Casanova as the Charles Dexter Ward surrogate. Casanova doesn’t even earn a mention in Warren‘s credits; instead, the lead byline goes to Rock Madison (formerly of Warren‘s “best” film, Man Beast, 1956), who plays the policeman named Ed, and beefy genre vet Bruno VeSota (Dementia/Daughter of Horror, Attack of the Giant Leeches, etc.), who dominates the first 15 minutes as a toga-wearing Police Inspector enduring a massage (from bogus masseur Chuck Niles) while rocking like an autistic man-child and barking out the plot points rendered otherwise incoherent by Warren‘s cuts. I’m ashamed to note that I originally saw Creature of the Walking Dead as a teenager on late-night TV, and I blotted it from memory. All I could recall—and I mean all—was VeSota rambling while the masseur worked the flab on his left arm. None of the rest stuck with me.

Long-time Warren fans (yes, they exist!) will be happy to stick around to savor Warren regular Katherine Victor (Teenage Zombies, The Wild World of the Bat Woman) as a psychic who has misplaced her maid. Warren‘s usual careless, maladroit staging of Victor‘s half-hearted abortive seance is framed to bring our wandering attention to a waist-height electrical socket in the wall behind the participants—it’s not quite Doris Wishman territory, but Warren prepared an entire generation for worse.

What we can still enjoy of the original Mexican horror movie Warren purchased has me aching to see the unadulterated original version; it’s Lovecraft‘s Charles Dexter Ward via Hammer Films via Paramount via 1950s Mexican horror, if you will. Fernando Casanova stars in the dual roles of Dr. Malthus and his modern-day descendent Gonzalo Malthus, newlywed to Rosa (Sonia Furió).

As in the subsequent Corman/Beaumont Charles Dexter Ward adaptation The Haunted Palace, it’s an oversized painted portrait of Dr. Malthus that asserts the initial malign influence over Gonzalo, whose exploration of the family hacienda leads to the discovery of a secret laboratory, the mummified remains of Malthus‘s final female victims, and Malthus‘s bound diary and notes.

Rosa finds Gonzalo‘s erratic behavior increasingly distressing, unaware that he has also plundered the family tomb to bring the executed Dr. Malthus back to the lab and resurrect him; in short order, Malthus‘s blood transfusions restore his youthful vigor and appearance, prompting him to lock balking Gonzalo up in one of the three cells adjacent to the lab and present himself (after a quick haircut, shave, and a scarf to hide the scar from the hangman’s noose) to Rosa as his descendent Gonzalo. Then Malthus finds himself unexpectedly aging, requiring new transfusions from fresh victims, and as the proverbial geriatric shit hits the fan, Rosa is so readily at hand…

What we can still see of the original film—primarily its long, leisurely silent passages—remain surprisingly atmospheric, thanks to elegant lighting and cinematography by José Ortiz Ramos, effective night locations, and spare but efficient production design & sets (Gunther Gerszo and Rafael Suárez). The premise, screenplay, Armando Meyer‘s rather goopy old-age makeup for Dr. Malthus, and Juan Muñoz Ravelo‘s special effects assert the most obvious cinematic precursor to the original Mexican film to have been Terence Fisher/Jimmy Sangster/Hammer Film‘s The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959, from the Barré Lyndon play “The Man in Half-Moon Street,” earlier filmed under that title in the US by Paramount in 1945), though there’s no mistaking Charles Dexter Ward as the key source.

And yet—well, this is a long shot. The staging of the kidnappings and Meyer‘s makeup for the elderly stalker Dr. Malthus also evokes/parallels/recalls Anton Giulio Majano‘s Seddok, L’erede di Satana (1960), an almost immediate contemporary; could Seddok have possibly played in Mexico early enough to inspire La Marca del Muerto? It can’t be—but the resemblance is uncanny. According to imdb.com and other sources, Seddok opened in Italy in August 1960, but didn’t play elsewhere until 1962 and 1963 (when it opened in Germany, and in the US as Atom-Age Vampire), but—really, La Marca del Muerto is awfully close at times to Seddok‘s look, feel, and makeup design. A subject for further research, perhaps.

Nevertheless, in tenor, atmosphere, and narrative template, La Marca del Muerto fits snugly (with The Man Who Could Cheat Death) amid and between the continental “mad scientist kidnaps women for their blood/skin/bodies” likes of Freda and Bava‘s I Vampire/The Devil’s Commandment (1956/63), Victor Trivas‘s Die Nackte und der Satan/The Head (1959/61), Green and Carlton‘s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959/62), Franju‘s Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without A Face/Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (1960/63), Franco‘s Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962/64), etc.—while anticipating the Lovecraft films of the 1960s. Thus, it’s a too-long-ignored, arguably key transitional genre effort.

Until there’s a proper English-subtitled, uncut, complete version of La Marca del Muerto in reach, Lovecraft lovers and Mexican horror film devotees have little choice but to endure the Jerry Warren meatloaf hackjob (available from Sinister Cinema in a very watchable, clean transfer superior to the Goodtimes Video EP/LP vhs editions and comparable to the long OOP Rhino Video release).

As noted, this is historically the closest thing we have to an “official” Lovecraft adaptation, despite the lack of even a story credit to dear ol’ Howard Phillips. Given its proximity to the brilliant The Haunted Palace, La Marca del Muerto arguably ushered in the first decade of truly Lovecraftian cinema.

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Discussion (4) ¬

  1. Roger Green

    Not that it’s the end all and be all, but I usually see so few films in the summer, I ‘m interesting in the Rotten Tomatoes scores
    38% The Possession
    66% Lawless
    74% Hope Springs
    I saw the previews for The Words – and it looked interesting:, but 17% positive reviews makes me wary. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_words/
    Whereas Robot & Frank , with Frank Langella, which also looked interesting, got 89% positive reviews. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/robot_and_frank/ If I’m going to see one movie in the next two or three weeks, I’m going to go with the better reviewed flick.
    Do reviews affect you at all, Steve?

  2. srbissette

    Screw the critics, and online critics above all (I know—I’m posting online reviews! HA!). Most of the films I love above all films were panned, reviled, and spat upon when they came out, and that includes plenty of movies considered stone-cold classics today.

    I’m always open to recommendations, but curses will get me rushing TO a movie faster than high percentage ratings on any website—hence, I rushed to the loathed CREATURE last September and had one of the best times I had in a theater last year.

    Marge pays more attention to that consensus than I ever have, will, or do. For instance, am I surprised that among average mainstream viewers a safe, pleasant mainstream movie like HOPE SPRINGS rates “higher” than a confrontational, at times deliberately unpleasant Depression-era moonshine movie? Of course not. “Ratings” usually “rate” relative comfort levels and entertainment (i.e., fluff factor) rather than anything to do with quality, much less what I look for in a movie.

    I want movies to take me places I’ve never been, or would never go, and would in fact avoid, in my life. Most folks hate movies that go there or do that. Most folks like the comfortable, the familiar, the safe.

    Fuck that 66% for LAWLESS—they don’t get it. I don’t care. I loved it, and as I said, it’s up there with BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD as best of the year for me.

  3. Henry R. Kujawa

    “THE HAUNTED PALACE” (I must have a strange glitch here, almost every time I try to type that the last word comes out “Palance”) has become a perrenial fave of mine, usually watched as part of the whole Corman-Poe set (6 of 8, collect ‘em all!). It won my heart when, on first viewing, I realized that “NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS” was esentially a poor remake of it, only with the last 15-20 minutes missing. Apparently, even the unreleased pre-MGM-butcher job version of “NODS” still has the bad ending, though I look forward to seeing that (assuming it will or has been finally put out there).

    Many faves of mine get panned mercilessly, including at the IMDB. This includes things like “HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS” (my fave of the entire “Halloweeen” series), “THUNDERBIRDS” (on the 3rd try at a feature film, they finally got a decent movie out of the idea), “BAD CHANNELS” (think “WKRP” and space aliens), and “KULL THE DESTROYER” (to me, by a mile, the best Robert E. Howard film).

    On the other hand, “OUT OF THE PAST” was one I was glad I saw on TCM once… “ONCE!” That was enough for me. (Who can predict personal taste?)

  4. Robert Plante

    Steve, have you reviewed THE ROAD (2009) on your blog? If not, how about a brief summation of your thoughts? This movie shook me for weeks, haunted my thoughts, and made me afraid to read the book, as I was told it was toned down for the movie. It didn’t help that we walked out the screening at Albany’s Spectrum into damp, dark, wintery weather exactly like that of the film!

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