Docs Own It

So far the most affecting highs of Sundance 2006 are not coming from the features but the documentaries. No narrative except Little Miss Sunshine has generated any kind of noticable wattage, but everywhere you turn people are talking up the docs.
Yesterday afternoon I saw Freida Mock’s conventional but nonetheless moving and impassioned Wrestling with Angels, a study of the great playwright Tony Kushner. Here, at last, was a film of serious substance and palpable emotion…something that woke me up…a movie about caring and striving and laying it on the line.

An acquisitions guy who’s been vigorously making the rounds told me last night that Christopher Quinn’s God Grew Tired of Us, a study of young Sudanese refugees, is an Oscar-level achievement. (I’ll be seeing it this morning, and — not that this matters — there’s a reception for Quinn from 8 to 10 pm tonight.)
I detected heartfelt enthusiasm last night in response to yesterday’s 3 pm Eccles screening of Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares, which is said to provide epic coverage of the career of the Police in the late ’70s and ’80s. I won’t see it until 11:30 pm tonight at Prospector Square but I’m sensing the alignment of coming pleasure.
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Ditto Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which screens tonight at the Eccles at 9:30 and tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Library. How can this not be a fine deep-drill meditation about an indusputably great songwriter and performer, no matter how Demme decides to play it? The elements seems unquenchable.
Haskell Wexler’s Who Needs Sleep, which is showing right now at the Holiday Cinemas (and which I’m obviously not seeing because I’m writing this) did well at the Library on Saturday evening. Okay, I didn’t poll the audience but I’ve spoken to two journos who saw it, and they were well satisfied.
Thin, Lauren Greenfield’s doc about eating disorders, is reputedly exceptional… although I still have yet to see it.

Neil Young

There was ample respect and satisfaction shown for Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man when it played the Toronto Film Festival last September, and the response has been the same in Park City. (And there’s no colon after “Cohen”… this is how the title reads.) The IMDB says Lionsgate will be releasing it in May.
The selling point of Nathaniel Hornblower’s Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!, which ThinkFilm will release in late March, is in the concept. It’s a Beastie Boys concert doc shot by 50 fans who were handed video cameras and urged to shoot away. The word on it has been strong since before the festival began.
Not to mention Patricia Foulkrod’s Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends, Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert’s A Lion in the House, Malcolm Ingram’s Small-Town Gay Bar…obviously I’m just laundry listing and you can call it hot air, but docs are where the current is.

To Live By

I can’t provide a clip from Freida Lee Mock’s Tony Kushner doc, Wrestling with Angels, but I’ve found a sampling of the exceptional joie de vivre that this gifted writer seems to exude every time he steps in front of a mike.
It’s a portion of a Class Day address that Kushner delivered a delivered to grad- uating Columbia University students in June 2004. Read it, or watch the video.
Think not of the content as words meant to inspire students, but all of us. Each morning of each day begins the remainder of our lives.

Tony Kushner

“This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry…all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating.
“This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready…and every step you take from this point on counts.
“This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth — seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act.
“The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.”

Holding Pattern

Saturday’s snowfalls (there were at least two) in Park City seemed far more nourishing and stimulating than any of the four films I saw: Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, Julian Goldberger’s The Hawk is Dying, Patrick Stettner’s The Night Listener and Mia Goldman’s Open Window.
If there’s a general impression so far, it’s that festivalgoers are underwhelmed so far (apart from Little Miss Sunshine). It’s fun going from screening to screening and trucking around and running into friends, but none of the films have struck anyone as genuinely powerful or heavy-duty.
Apart from the four I sat through, nothing happened yesterday except for people talking about the $10 million Fox Searchlight purchase of Little Miss Sunshine, a couple of pleasant-vibe parties, a lot of time spent in impossibly congested traffic jams, especially on the main road in downtown Park City, which is a ridiculous alcoholic zoo.

Little Miss Sunshine costar Alan Arkin grilled by a blonde at party thrown for Sunshine and Sherrybaby by Big Beach at VW Lounge — Saturday, 4:45 pm

I’ve heard good things about Lauren Greenfield’s Thin, which shows tonight (1.22) at the Holiday Village cinemas. (My only concern is an enthusiastic review that David Poland wrote about this film last night. Beware: underneath every Poland rave is a potential for another Devil and Daniel Johnston meltdown.)

I’ve also heard stuff about the Tony Kushner doc Wrestling with Angels, which I’m going to try to see today at 5:30 pm.
As I was leaving the Eccles just after Saturday’s 6 pm Night Listener screening I mentioned to a journo pal that watching it felt like being in a kind of prison…a windowless isolation cell in Iraq during the Hussein regime. It’s a movie for dead people — the whole thing is entombed. Almost every shot is enveloped in shadows and blackness, and your kindly torturer is a bearded and extremely old and withered-looking Robin Williams.

Written by Amistead Maupin, Terry Anderson and Stettner, The Night Listener is based on a mostly true story (or so I heard). It’s about a radio talk-show host who becomes intrigued by a young sickly kid (Rory Culkin) he’s spoken to on the phone but has never seen, and about his search for the boy and some very curious encounters with a blind woman who seems to be his mom (Tonni Collette).

During yesterday afternoon’s snowfall — Saturday, 3:15 pm

What happens is so dreary and stifling I don’t want to recount it, but this is one of those films that makes you repeat that Victoria Wisdom line about “Sundance spelled backwards spells depression.”

It’s startling to consider that the producers of this film thought that filmgoers might actually be persuaded to pay money to see this thing. You program Sundance for “diversity,” and you get stuff like this. This is a real John Cooper film.

Sherrybaby — a melancholy, downward-spiral drama about an ex-drug addict (Maggie Gyllenhaal) just out of prison who’s too weak, selfish and lacking in resolve to make any serious changes in her life — felt like the most straightforward and heartfelt of the four.

But as pics about suburban mothers with drug problems go, Down to the Bone (which I wrote about two weeks ago) isn’t as much of a downer because its main character, played by Vera Farmiga, is smarter and more self-aware than Gyllen- haal’s, and she seems more guilty and self-critical about her problem so you’re able to half-root for her recovery.

During q & a following yesterday morning’s screening of Sherrybaby at Racquet Club, costars Maggie Gyllenhaal, 8 year-old Ryan Simpkins, Bridget Barkan

Gyllenhaal’s Sherry, based upon a troubled woman from Collyer’s past, is somewhat sympathetic. She has a good heart and loves her toddler daughter (who’s been raised by her brother and his wife when she went into prison for theft) and has been deeply hurt by sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father (Sam Bottoms). But some people are just born to screw up and fall down, and Sherry is one of these sad sacks and that’s that.

Recovering addicts need discipline, maturity and hard introspection to stay out of trouble, and a lot of them just don’t have the stuff to pull through, and so they wind up wasting their lives and subjecting their friends and families to all their crap for decades. Thank fortune some of them break out of the cycle and climb out of the pit, but most of them don’t.

That said, Gyllenhaal is quite invested and believable (her not being very likable is a choice that Collyer made), and the young girl who plays her daughter — 8 year- old Ryan Simpkins — is flat-out superb.

Snapped on the way to screening of The Night Listener — Saturday, 1.21, 5:25 pm.

I haven’t seen his mermaid-in-the-swimming-pool movie, but The Hawk is Dying won’t hurt Paul Giamatti’s career. We all have to work and pay the bills, and some- times we work with friends for the wrong reasons, and moviegoers understand this, I think.

I started thinking about catching a snooze very soon after this film began. I’ve become disciplined enough at sleeping during films that I can make myself wake up every ten minutes just to keep up with the plot. So I can honestly saw that I saw maybe half of it, and that the portions I saw left me totally cold.

Set in the south, The Hawk is Dying is about an owner of an auto upholstery shop named George who lives with his grotesquely fat sister and her mentaly challenged son Fred (Michael Pitt). George is into training falcons, and the footage of him capturing and training a red-tailed falcon is…well, interesting. But I was glad for the nap time.

Open Window star Robin Tunney, Kinky Boots star Chiwetel Ejiofor (his close friends call him “Chewy”) prior to midnight showing of Open Window

When I was watching I didn’t give care at all about paying sufficient attention in order to understand or give a shit about the hawk-capturing metaphor. Movies with overt metaphors get be very old very quickly.

Any movie that makes a Paul Giamatti performance seem dull or running on empty is definitely doing something wrong, and Michael Pitt really needs to play an aver- age guy soon. Someone who smiles and wears clean clothes and brushes his teeth and talks in complete sentences. Pitt always plays barely articulate zone cases, and I’m starting to wonder if he can do anything else.

Open Window is a dull, decently made drama about a youngish Los Angeles couple coping with the trauma of the wife (Robin Tunney) having been raped in their home while the husband, a UCLA professor (Joel Edgerton), is away.

Sherrybaby director Laurie Collyer at Saturday’s Big Beach party at VW Lounge — 4:40 pm.

It’s a problem movie because it’s only about dealing with a problem and nothing much else. A bad thing happens, good people struggle with after-effects of the bad thing, recovery is slow and difficult, and so on. There’s a startling Repulsion-like moment about halfway through, but nothing else got me.

The problem with midnight screenings is that they always start at 12:30 am after the talent introductions and the short and the initial start-up delays, so you wind up gettign to sleep at 3 ayem and then the next day is late-starting and a whole late- rising, late-to-bed cycle begins.

It’s now 1:25 pm. I’m just finishing and haven’t showered so I’ll be missing the 3 pm Eccles screening of Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares, his doc about touring with the Police. That settles it — no more midnight screenings.

Saturday Grabs

Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, Little Miss Sunshine director Valerie Fairs at Big Beach party — Saturday, 4:45 pm.

Ulrich Thomsen, star of Christopher Boe’s Allegro and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Adam’s Apples.

The traffic gets worse every year. From the Library up to Main Street is a total parking lot. I jumped off the bus and got into town much faster by walking.

Sunshine Sublime

The first big of the ’06 Sundance Film Festival ignited last night in front of a huge, seriously delighted crowd at the Eccles theatre, and you can bet one of the big indie-level distribs will have cinched a deal to release it before the sun comes up Saturday morning.

I’m speaking of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine …and all lovers of good, smart mainstream comedies with heart should have been there. For me, watching films like this with a live-wire crowd is what Sundance highs are all about.

This isn’t exactly a movie that re-invents the wheel. It’s just a smart family comedy-slash-road movie, but the last film that got so much good humor out of such dark subject matter was maybe David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, although Sunshine is a bit more of a wholesome, straight-up thing.

Following the 6pm Friday night screening of Little Miss Sunshine (l. to r.): Toni Collette, screenwriter Michael Arndt (partially hidden), co-helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.

This is a film about hostility, feelings of futility, middle-aged career collapse, a troubled marriage, a fiercely alienated son, a dad who’s a bit of an asshole, a sudden family death, a failed suicide…and it’s often very funny and quite warm and so cleverly calculated and well-blended that it doesn’t feel like anyone calculated anything.

Sundance director Geoff Gilmore has written that Little Miss Sunshine possesses a kind of “Capra-esque lunacy.” For me the word Capra (as in Frank) means cornball emotion and cloying stabs at manipulation…and Sunshine feels, to me, more natural (and naturally effective) than any Capra film I’ve ever seen.

And damned if Steve Carell isn’t eight times sadder and gloomier in this thing than he was in the early portions of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and if he isn’t much funnier and more winning here than he was in that hit film from last summer. It’s his best performance ever.

Virgin director-writer Judd Apatow has been writing comedy for 15 years or so, and when he sees Little Miss Sunshine he’s going to wish he could write something as good as what Michael Arndt has done, and direct a comedy of this type with the naturalistic panache shown by co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

The crowd on its feet after the lights came up.

Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Michael Arndt

Sunshine is basically about family ties holding strong under ghastly and horrific circumstances.
It’s two days or so in the life of the can’t-catch-a-break Hoover clan — the vaguely dipshitty motivational speaker Richard (Gregg Kinnear), his sorely frustrated wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), Sheryl’s crushed, post-suicidal brother (Carell), a curmud- geonly, drug-taking grandpa (Alan Arkin), the silent, sulking Dwayne (Paul Dano), and 7 year-old cutie-pie Olive (Abigail Breslin).

The action is about going on a car trip from hell to take Olive to a Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach…and wouldn’t you just know the pageant itself would also be a nightmare? But this family has an improvised cure for that.

It’s not just that this all feels unexpectedly funny, but fresh and unforced. It’s not quite as refined or soulful as Alexander Payne’s Sideways, but dammit…Little Miss Sunshine has to be a hit…it can’t not be. Now watch paying audiences shrug their shoulders and go “eh” when it opens later this year.

The crowd waiting outside (in what felt like 20 degree weather) before the ushers finally let everyone into the 6 pm show..

Little Miss Sunshine got a standing ovation when it ended around 8 pm or there- abouts. And now it’s 3:55 ayem Utah time and I’m sitting in the lobby of the Park City Marriott because the QWest DSL that was supposed to be working in the condo wasn’t working, and fuck me.

Cinetic Media’s John Sloss is probably still finalizing the distrib deal for Little Miss Sunshine as I write this. Indiewire reported early this morning that “biz activity kicked into high gear with immediate offers rumored to be in the millions of dollars. Negotiations were continuing at 1:30 a.m. early Saturday morning. An overnight deal was possible, but an insider added, “I think it will be a long night.”

It took Faris and Dayton about five years to get this film made. Why I can’t imag- ine, but this anecdote in itself reminds me how blind and clueless mainstream Hollywood can often be. What if Faris and Dayton had given up? How many people with scripts as good as this one have grown weary and thrown in the towel after getting turned down for the 27th time?

Longtime Sundancer Cherry Kutac (left) and sister prior to start of 2nd Friday night show, Lucky Number Slevin.

Cold Mountain

For the first time since the ’93 Sundance Film Festival, I haven’t gotten a jump on things by arriving early in Park City — Wednesday night, say, or early Thursday afternoon — and filing the usual hot story about the food I’ve bought at Albertson’s and the people I’ve run into in the aisles.

I won’t even be picking up my press pass until late Friday afternoon, which means I’ll be missing the 1:30 pm press screening of The World According to Sesame Street, which I’m hearing is time very well spent. But the value of pre-festival Los Angeles phone-chat info is dropping sharply as we speak so forget it.

Park City’s Main Street during the waning hours of the ’05 festival, snapped from the roof of the Treasure Mountain Inn.

I can’t wait for the first left-field oddball movie to pop through. By “left field” I mean the sort of life-altering, visions-of-Johanna indie-cred film that very bright critics like Manohla Dargis or David Poland tend to have kittens over, and that not-quite-as- bright people like myself tend to have difficulty with. It’ll happen, trust me.

“There’s nothing like seeing a good film with a totally hip audience at Sundance,” people always say. And yes, the festival is worth it for those wondrous communal highs. But not every movie that slays in Park City does the same in Framingham or Paramus. And it’s not the film’s fault. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but some audiences just aren’t hip or perceptive enough to get it and that’s the truth.

If a movie is playing at the Eccles, the Raquet Club or the Library over the first three or four days, it’s probably pretty good or at least penetrating or half-clever on some level. And if it’s been scheduled from Tuesday, 1.24, through the end of the festival, be careful. (Except for Alpha Dog — see following story.)

I’m presuming that Stephanie Daley, Hilary Brougher’s drama about a young woman (Amber Tamblyn) who may have killed her child, will be one of the first announced pick-ups, but to judge from the film’s Equus-summoning quote that appears in the program notes — “This case is not about facts…it’s about what we believe” — the hoi polloi appeal may be limited.

At Thursday’s Sundance 2006 press conference (l. to r.): festival director Geoff Gilmore, founder & honcho Robert Redford, Friends with Money director-screenwriter Nicole Holofcener

I gather (i.e., have been told more than once) that Little Miss Sunshine, a Capra- esque dysfunctional-family heart movie from co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, will also be one of the early pick-ups. (Smells to me like a Fox Searchlight thing.)

Written by Michael Arndt (who lived in my humble West Hollywood abode last summer while I crashed in his spartan Brooklyn apartment), it stars Toni Collette, Gregg Kinear, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin. (First screen- ing: Eccles at 6 pm Friday. 2nd screening: Library at 8:30 am, Saturday, 1.21.)

Other likely pick-ups appear to be Julia Goldberger’s The Hawk is Dying with Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams; The Darwin Awards with Joseph Fiennes and Win- ona Ryder; The Night Listener, a drama with Robin Williams, Toni Collette and Sandra Oh; and The Illusionist with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel.

Wait a minute…The Darwin Awards?

Other intrigues include Michael Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, about a guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) falling for his neighbor; Chris Gorak’s Right at Your Door, a post- 9/11 nightmare piece about a terrorist “dirty bomb” detonating in Los Angeles; and Jason Reitman’s Thank you for Smoking, a comedy about a jaded tobacco lobbyist (Aaron Eckkhardt) which everyone saw and liked in Toronto four months ago.

Some people are cranked about seeing Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential, which I saw and didn’t think much of…sorry.

Prada Lala

The Devil Wears Prada (20th Century Fox, 6.30.06) is a Manhattan fast-lane chick flick about the soul-corrupting rigors of working for an Anna Wintour-like Boss from Hell.
Let’s face it — Meryl Streep is going to wail as Miranda Priestley, editor-in-chief of the Glamour-ish Runway magazine. We all love it when gifted actresses play successful hyper neurotics. Faye Dunaway was never so perfect as she was in Network.
Anne Hathaway (Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife in Brokeback Mountain) plays Andy, the college journalism major hired to be Streep’s junior assistant as the film begins. Stanley Tucci, Rent‘s Tracie Thoms, Simon Baker and Emily Blint costar.

Meryl Streep a Miranda Priestly in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada

I’ve read the script and enjoyed it for what it is, but I’d like to see a Hollywood confection some day that doesn’t trot out the same old bromide that demanding, high-paying, high-pressure jobs are bad for your relationship with your sweet laid-back boyfriend (played here by Adrian Grenier) and bad for your soul, etc.
Peter Hedges (About a Boy) has top-of-the-page screenplay credit on my draft, which is dared March 14, 2005.
The revisions are by three smarty-pants writers supplying the uptown polish and bitchy banter (Howard Michael Gould, Paul Rudnick and Don Roos).
The most recent polish when this draft was copied was by Aline Brosh McKenna (Laws of Attraction), whom the producers brought in to punch up Hathaway’s part and soften up the emotional tone of the film (i.e., make it more appealing to under-30 women) by heightening the vulnerability stuff.

Dog Has Its Day

Of the dozens of definite-interest films playing at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (which I haven’t even begun to try and summarize), Nick Cassevetes’ Alpha Dog has easily gotten the most press…and yet it’s showing at the very end of the fes- tival (Friday, 1.27 at the Eccles, and Saturday, 1.28, at Prospector Square) when most of the hot-and-happening crowd will be gone.
I have it on very good authority that it’s worth sticking around for. Alpha Dog isn’t a great film but it’s quite provocative and even agitating (in a good way). It’s certainly thought-provoking, and it boasts more than a few live-wire performances, including a serious stand-out one by Justin Timberlake.

Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Willis, Olivia Wilde and Justin Timberlake in Alpha Dog.

Directed and written by Cassevetes, Alpha Dog is more than a cautionary tale about amoral kids gone wild. It’s a condemnation of liberal anything-goes values, of absentee parents, of a society lacking in moral fibre. In short, it’s a film that social conservatives will point to and say, “See? This is what we’re trying to prevent.” And it’ll be hard to argue with them.
The impression is that Dog has fashioned its own particular vibe and attitude, but it will certainly be seen as following in the tradition of Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, Jack Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek and Larry Clark’s Bully.
The film also stars Shawn Hatosy, Harry Dean Stanton, a bewigged Bruce Willis, Olivia Wilde, Sharon Stone, Dominique Swain and Ben Foster (another provider of an exceptional performance).
Based on a true story that happened about six years ago, Dog is about a 20 year-old known as Jesse James Hollywood (called Johnny Truelove in the movie, and portrayed by Lords of Dogtown‘s Emile Hirsch), a pot dealer from a well-to-do San Fernando Valley suburb who obviously saw himself as a minor-league Tony Montana.
This plus the general lower-end-of-the-gene-pool idiocy that is not unknown to suburban youth culture led to Jimmy making a fatal error: he and some pals kidnapped the 15 year-old younger brother of a guy who owed him $1200 as a way of applying pressure, and when he later realized he and his cronies would be looking at big-time jail terms he told a flunkie to kill the boy (Nicholas Markowitz in actuality– called Zack Mazursky in the film and played by Anton Yelchin) to keep him from testifying.

Justin Timberlake

When the boy’s body was found Jimmy eventually left the country and, with his father’s help, wound up living incognito in Brazil. But last March he was punched by Interpol agents and brought back to the U.S. to face murder charges.
The reason Alpha Dog has been getting a lot of press (in a David Halbfinger story that ran today in the New York Times and one that Lou Lumenick ran in the on 1.13) is because Cassavetes and the film’s distributor, New Line Cinema, are caught up in a legal tangle over a threatened injunction that could conceivably prevent Alpha Dog from being released on 2.24.06, as New Line is planning.
The beef is from Hollywood’s attorney James Blatt, who’s saying that prosecuting attorney Rod Zonen was guilty of misconduct by providing inside information about the murder case to Cassevetes during the film’s preparation phase. Blatt’s argu- ment is that the release of this information in a dramatic fashion in Alpha Dog will prejudice matters against his client.
Cassevetes was subpoenaed by Blatt last summer as part of an attempt to have Zonen removed from the case for giving Cassavetes access to nonpublic records. The ploy failed. Two months ago a judge ordered Cassavetes’s researcher, Michael Mehas, who is writing a book about the case, to turn over notes and tapes from his interviews to the defense. Blatt is now threatening to seek an injunction against the release of Alpha Dog.
I suspect Blatt is mainly grandstanding and that Alpha Dog will probably open as planned, but ahead-of-the-curve types will probably want to see it at Sundance just to play it safe.

Emile Hisch

Sundance honcho Geoff Gilmore declares in the program notes that Cassavetes’ film “captures the driving energy and sordid anomie of contemporary youth culture,” adding that it end “in a tragedy that would be shocking if we weren’t so aware of the kind of world we live in, a place with kids who live without mores, parents who don’t have a clue, and ongoing conflict between the lingering inno- cence of youth and moral disintegration and dissolution.”
Being a father of a 17 and a 16 year-old, this Cassevetes quote in the Times piece about absentee-parenting struck home:
“I’m guilty of it — of being too busy with your everyday life to properly spend enough time with your children to figure out what’s going on with them.
“You can check in, and you say, ‘Are you all right?’ But it’s not like being on a farm or spending a lot of time in the house. We all live really global, Internetty lives. Kids have more power than they did before. They have cars, they can get around, they have dough, and there’s always some person that’s got something going on that can get everybody killed.”

Vintage Art