Is There a Sundance Festival Personality?

January 17th, 2013 by Guy

The Sundance festival is here. The big celebration of all that is independent (and Indie-like foreign). Aspiring filmmakers from all over the world send their small-budget features in hopes to gain the support of a big distributor and make a name for themselves. Some of today’s brightest filmmakers started their careers this way – Kevin Smith, David O. Russel, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderberg, to name a few in the sea of notorious artists that changed the landscape of modern cinema, and maybe also our lives.

Nevertheless, after 35 years, it’s a good time to check if there’s such thing as a Sundance personality.  In other words, is there a “typical” Sundance title (regardless if it’s American, foreign or documentary)? So I decided to embark on a quest deep into Jinni’s movie genome, to find out which genes are the key components to make a trendy Sundance feature and which we shouldn’t expect to see to much.

The 253 movies in our catalog that have the gene Sundance festival winner showed me that first and foremost, Sundance is about being Realistic and Serious. If your kick is space and aliens, legends and myths, or grossout humor – better try elsewhere.

Moving on – small budget means you can forget about expensive plots involving races, explosives or creations of period setting, or futuristic or alternative worlds. And so, many titles are contemporary, intimate, sincere and contemplative. They deal with the less positive aspects of our society, with family relations and problems, or with couples-relations, all of which heavily projecting on characters’ minds and souls. Or to sum up, If life is a bitch, Sundance is the place to reflect on that. At least in many (mostly non-documentary) cases, these reflections end up with a touching note.

What is more surprising, are the genes that are not that typically found in the Sundance personality: if you think most titles are clever or thought provoking – hmmmm, not really. Contemplative – yes, but as far as leaving you to contemplate about them hours or days afterwards – less than I expected. They’re also not as slow as one may think. And finally, titles about youth, coming of age or friendship, are also not that popular among the winners. Less surprising is the absence of genres like thrillers, action, romance and comedies – check in your nearest studio for those. On the other hand, I think you can give credit to the festival in the sense that whenever there’s a movie that fits one of the less common genes, like disturbing or humorous, it REALLY is just that. They don’t supply secondhand quality, and in that sense, it is always a festival to be looking forward to.

And last, to all of you aspiring filmmakers that try to participate in hopes to rise to fame – usually critics see eye to eye with the judges, and most winners are also critically acclaimed. However, don’t have high box office expectations from your winning movie – modest earnings yes, a blockbuster – forget it. Maybe your next (studio) movie.

So now that a personality has evolved, I give you:

Sundance – The Conventional Features:

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

This family relations drama marks the breakthrough of fresh director Noah Baumbach, who went on to make bigger projects in hollywood after achieving critical acclaim. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both writers that are in the process of getting divorced, hurling their lives upside down, and creating a complicated situation of favoritism amongst their children. The now-famous Jesse Eisenberg plays the role of the adult son who also struggles with the separation and tries to cope with his normal life while trying to achieve his goals. As you can see, Sundance can present as a leap towards greater opportunities. There is no doubt Noah and Jesse have taken advantage of that.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

This disturbing documentary brings to light a seemingly “normal” and ordinary american family. It details some of the albeit regular trials and tribulations of the Friedman family – parents getting divorced, father being somewhat absent though is still supportive through the tougher times. Slowly but surely, we are being exposed to some very disturbing info about the father being a buyer and distributer of a child pornography. The movie does so well to present how “normal” some people act and live, when under the surface something extremely dark and evil can be lurking. Personally it made me become extremely skeptical about other people and also scared me completely.

Five Minutes of Heaven (2009)

Based on a true story, this drama tells the story of a former UVF member (played by Liam Neeson) who shot a young boy three times in the name of the organization. 25 years after imprisonment, the media tries to arrange a meeting between Neeson, and the brother of the boy he killed to try and reconcile. We follow Neeson’s regretful past, remorse and need of redeeming himself. It is a story about how people deal with death, and criticizes youthful devotion towards religious and cults that can blind your actions and judgment. Nothing delves deeper into the mind and soul than a tragic event that can haunt you your entire life.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary tells the captivating story of Timothy Treadwell, a bear expert that traveled to Alaska every year with the goal of studying and protecting wild bears. On October 2003 Timothy together with his girlfriend gets eaten by one of the very bears he was trying to protect. Director Werner Herzog managed to get his hands on a great deal of footage that Timothy took of his time in the wild, and through it he explores Timothy’s life and death together with members of his family.
This documentary is unique in it’s atmospheric mood, while managing to stay tense through a delicate subject that might not be an easy viewing experience for some viewers.

You Can Count On Me (2000)

This sincere and touching family relations drama tell the story of a single mother whose life is turned upside down when her sibling returns home after a long absence. The two siblings have both been scarred by the tragic death of their parents in a car accident. Mark Ruffalo plays the drifter sibling who is lost in life, looking for direction and purpose. In one of the earliest roles of his career, he achieved acclaim and slowly climbed the ladder of success.

Sundance – The Unconventional Features:

13 Tzameti (2005)

Coming from france, ‘13 Tzameti’ tells the story of Sebastian, a young man in need of money.  Out of desperation, he follows the instructions of a mysterious job to a house in the middle of the woods where men gamble on the lives of other men. ‘13 Tzameti’ exposes us to a tense, bleak world and keeps us on the edge of our seat, literally.

Saving Grace (2000)

From the UK we got an offbeat comedy that is truly hilarious. Grace is a fresh widow, who discovers that her husband mortgaged all of their belongings before he died, which means the bank is about to foreclose everything she has. With seemingly no other choice, Grace starts doing the unthinkable – she starts selling marijuana! Yes, you heard me! Slowly but surely it looks like she will be able to pay her debt. Loaded with an ensemble of whacky characters, this feel good comedy manages to take the bad and turn it into ridiculous, take it from me, I can still feel the pain in my belly as I laughed the whole time through.

Thirteen (2003)

‘Thirteen’ is Catherine Hardwick who went on to direct the mainstream sensation  ‘Twilight’, had her directional debut with this film. It’s also the 2nd movie role of nowadays-famous Evan Rachel Wood, so this is another successful career boost for 2 of Hollywood’s most talented. The story is about teenage life and friendship, less common genes in a Sundance title. It’s the story of Tracy, a teenager whose innocence is lost after she teams up with her cool best friend who is very rebellious and exposes her to a world of petty crime, drugs, and sexual exploration. The movie is loosely based on the early life of Wood’s co-star Nikki Reed.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

It might be a bit of a stretch to call this movie a Period piece, but it’s not often in Sundance that you get to watch a movie that is not contemporary. Dito is a writer from Los Angeles that returns home to Astoria after 15 years time. Being there resurfaces flashbacks from the past. We get to see Dito with his four closest friends and his girlfriend as they all do their best to navigate through the world of petty crime, family, and sex. Both Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum made a lot of TV movies before bursting into the big screen in this indie film. Both went on to become Hollywood superstars.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

I thought to end this unusual list with a truly unusual feature, and so here comes Hedwig. It is a musical , a punk rock musical which is something that is rarely found at festivals. It revolves around a transsexual from Berlin, who tours with his band through the USA, while telling his story along the way in different and odd locations such as diners or junkyards. Naturally being so loud and all-over-the place, it is safe to say this movie is very clever, which is also a component that appears in less than half of our Sundance database, making such a gem very hard to come by. If you believe it or not, this was merely the 2nd movie role of actor Michael Pitt, who went on to play in very prestigious TV shows later on in his career.

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Popularity: 2% [?]

Every Conflict can be Resolved with a Good Movie

October 15th, 2012 by Uri

With the world in what seems like a perpetual geopolitical turmoil, and this weekend’s release of Ben Affleck’s much buzzed Argo, which recounts actual undercover escapades in 1970s Iran, we thought it might be a good idea to look at the representations of some recent conflicts and their roots.

Machine Gun Preacher

Introducing viewers to the bleak reality of wartime life in Sudan through the eyes of an idealistic American volunteer who was transformed by the crimes he witnessed against humanity. This emotional action film, much like its hero, while low on subtlety, is also quite effective.

Min Dit: The Children of Diyarbakir

Also portraying children in danger, but this time from their own point of view, without the meditation of a rocket launcher totting hero, this story about two young kids’ loss of innocence reflects on the toll of the ethnic conflict in Turkey.

Generation Kill

Detailing in a sincere fashion the chaos and mayhem of military life in a conflict zone, this critically acclaimed mini series follows the first few weeks of a marines squad deployment in Iraq.

Generation-Kill-001

Restrepo

Offering a look on another highly related conflict, this time in a non-fiction format, this thought provoking documentary about a year in the life of an isolated U.S. military base in Afghanistan won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

City of Life and Death

While the current focus of the Sino-Japanese conflict is the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, its origins go much further back; one of its extremes, the occupation of Nanjing in 1937, is recounted in this epic disturbing film.

Shadow Dancer

It looks like the conflict in Northern Ireland has come to a peaceful resolution, but it wasn’t long ago when it had devastating effects on people’s lives. In this tense period piece, a single mother is thrown into a harsh moral dilemma, forced to betray her IRA family members.

El Lobo

Depicting another relatively dormant European conflict, this rough thriller, based on a true story follows a man coerced by the Spanish secret service to work undercover in a Basque radical group suspected of terrorist activity.

Thirteen Days

The Cold War may be long gone, but the shadows of this super conflict of powers are still present today. Its peak, the Cuban missile crisis, is represented in this suspenseful historical tale, focusing on John F. Kennedy’s  leadership and White House political intrigue.

JSA – Joint Security Area

Director’s Chan Wook Park’s breakthrough film deals with the long running conflict between South Korea and North Korea, choosing to concentrate on the unlikely friendship between soldiers from opposite sides of the border, which was ended by a tragic event.

Argo

With the continuous conflict between Iran and the West, Ben Affleck’s film goes back to the unstable period that started it, the eve of the Islamic revolution. The film centers on the improbable sounding, yet based on real events, daring rescue of American embassy workers from Tehran, using a scam so outlandish it’s called by a CIA agent “The best bad idea we have.”

Popularity: 2% [?]

Respect your Elders

September 9th, 2012 by Uri

While the summer was dominated, as usual, by movies dealing mostly with heroic young people punching each other or blowing stuff up, September gives much due respect to senior citizens – today is National Grandparents Day in the U.S. and next Monday is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan. We’ve decided to join in on the celebrations with titles dedicated to the elderly.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This critically acclaimed documentary not only chronicles the life and work of a legendary elderly chef and his never ending quest to create the perfect sushi dish, but also takes a look at his complex relationships with his son and with the special place food holds in the Japanese society.

The Ballad of Narayama

Shohei Imamura’s Cannes festival winner takes place in a remote mountain village and offers a distinctly bleak account of the hardships of village life in 19th century Japan, were tradition dictates everyone who reaches the age of 70 to leave his family in an act of self sacrifice.

Narayama

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

In another place and another time, a group of English senior citizens decide to spend their golden years in a far less distressing way than their Japanese counterparts. They discover, however, a retirement home completely different from the one they’ve imagined, trying to overcome the culture clash they’ve stumbled into.

Harry Brown

You can always trust Michael Caine that he will not go away quietly, especially when his neighborhood is overrun by juvenile delinquency and social decay. The loss of a friend sends him into an increasingly violent spiral of vengeful vigilantism in this rough and suspenseful late addition to his long career.

Le Havre

This uplifting and offbeat tale of human spirit, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, revolves around an old man who finds himself alone after his wife has been hospitalized. His loneliness is blissfully disrupted by a young African illegal immigrant on the run, with whom he forms an unlikely friendship.

Robot and Frank

The elderly aren’t usually associated with technological advancement. This is not the case with ex-burglar Frank who, in order to save his girlfriend’s library, teams with his robot friend to become one of the unlikeliest criminal duos in recent memory.

Lonesome Dove

Widely regarded as a television masterpiece, this epic story, set in the old west follows two aging buddies who go on the road, traveling from Texas to Montana in order to open a ranch. But, as expected, their journey can’t go without encounters with some unsavory types.

Trash Humpers

This darkly humored independent film from Harmony Corrine features the elderly in a most unusual way. The dirty old men at the center of this piece engage in all kinds of pranks and anti social behavior. Don’t expect too much coherency, but you can count on a high cynical quirkiness factor.

Amour

Michael Haneke’s uncharacteristically touching story about elderly lovers facing the wife’s illness added to his already considerable awards collection by winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year. (can you detect the slight ageism pattern in the French festival?)

Amour

The Old Guys

Being old does not necessarily equal being mature, as evidenced by the immature odd couple at the center of this sitcom, whose favorite pastime is clumsily wooing their neighbor.

Bonus: #Eastwooding

Everyone’s favorite gruff octogenarian, who’s playing an aging baseball scout in the upcoming Trouble with the Curve, proves that it’s never too late to become a media sensation, and that sometimes, it’s a bit hard to respect the elderly…

Popularity: 1% [?]

Terminal vs. Mental

May 29th, 2012 by Ran

So apparently May is a depressing month. It is the awareness month of no less than five VERY serious diseases: Brain Tumors, Mental Illness, Skin Cancer and ALS, AKA Lou Gehrig’s disease. I don’t know who’s in charge of the illness awareness calendar, and I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think it’s good for you to be aware of so many ailments at the same time. As a form of escapism, I decided to look to the cinematic and TV archives for the best titles that deal with either mental disorders or terminal illnesses, and try to decide where they were done the most justice. Since there are so many different films about this subject I divided my showdown into five categories:

1. TV Series

Boss (2011) vs. Homeland (2011)


Although both TV series are not strictly about disease, the illnesses their characters suffer from are one of the main reasons for the choices they make and the actions they take. When the boss of Chicago, mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), discovers he suffers from a terminal illness that has no cure, he is determined to: (a) keep it a secret, (b) try and reconcile with his estranged daughter, and (c) do everything he can to secure his political legacy. In Homeland, CIA officer Carrie Anderson (Claire Danes) suffers from bipolar disorder, which drives her obsession to investigate her suspect no matter what her boss says. While Danes’ character is infinitely more sympathetic than Grammer’s, the complexity of Boss gives it the edge. 1 – 0 for the terminally ill.

2. Documentary

How to Die in Oregon (2011) vs. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)


In the dead corner we have a film about the first American state to legalize assisted suicides and how different people deal with their death. In the mad corner, we see the rise and fall of an idiosyncratic and mentally ill musician, whose psyche never gave him a chance at success. Both film are Sundance Festival winners. This is a very difficult choice for me. On the one hand, the subject matter of How to Die in Oregon is more important and thought provoking. On the other, the sincere and unflinching portrayal of an unstable human being and his very unique music makes for a very different and refreshing film. I’ll call it a draw.

3. Comedy

50/50 (2011) vs. The Savages (2007)


In 50/50 Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns he has a malignant tumor and has a 50/50 chance of survival. Brother and sister Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) learn that their estranged father has dementia, and they need to take care of him. Laughing at with such serious subjects is no mean feat. And when you have Seth Rogen in the cast, the chance of offending someone can somewhat grow. But the result is a really touching comedy that is not too sappy with a dash of “in your face” Rogen. The great cast of The Savages and a very good script make it complex and three dimensional. I’m still undecided – a draw.

4. Offbeat

Beginners (2010) vs. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)


Ewan McGregor gets two surprising revelations from his elderly father (Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer): He comes out as gay and has terminal cancer. The film begins after the loveable father’s death, and has a nonlinear style, leaping back and forth from his relationship with his dying but upbeat dad, his dealings with grief, sexuality, commitment, and meeting a new woman (Melanie Laurent). Johnny Depp plays Gilbert Grape, who deals with an extremely obese mom and a mentally ill brother (Leonardo Di Caprio). Both protagonists have a lot on their plate, and both films offer tender moments and good acting. It’s the lead actor that tips the scale, and Depp’s performance is far better than McGregor’s ultimately unsatisfying character. The mental cases get on the board; it’s a 1-1 draw.

5. Contemplative

The Barbarian Invasions (2003) vs. Persona (1966)


Estranged family and old friends try to make the final days of an ill professor as agreeable as they can, while the dying man reflects on his choices, way of life and philosophy. In Ingmar Bergman’s experimental film a young and beautiful nurse (Bibi Andersson) is isolated with a mentally ill actress (Liv Ullman) for her therapy. The inexperienced caregiver is swept into a strange co-dependent relationship that is not recommended for any therapist. While Bergman’s essential film is interesting, and sweeping with amazing acting from the two leads, the human warmth present in Denys Arcand’s drama, with much wit and humor, made it’s way right into my heart. 2-1 to the dying who return to the lead.

6. Rough

Fireworks (1997) vs. The Killer Inside Me (2010)


An ex-cop goes on a killing spree, while dealing with his wife’s terminal illness, in Takeshi Kitano’s crime drama; In Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel, we get into the mind of a psychopathic sheriff who moonlights as a serial killer. Both films are brutally violent, with Kitano’s character abiding by Tuco’s (or, The Ugly) rule of combat (shoot, don’t talk) while kicking major Yakuza butt, and Casey Affleck killing mercilessly with no remorse. It’s those moments of tenderness in Fireworks, where Kitano’s old partner is painting, and the violence quells (for a bit), that make this film more complete than the detached character study of a psychopath Winterbottom sets out to explore. 3-1, death is getting ahead.

7. True Story/Biography

Philadelphia (1993) vs. A Beautiful Mind (2001)


Tom Hanks plays a lawyer that deals with AIDS and discrimination in his workplace in this powerful drama, which is relevant also today. The rise and fall of the unstable Mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) is the story of A Beautiful Mind. Both movies won Oscars and both are very moving, but for me the acting of Hanks is superior to Rowe’s so Philly gets the nod. Death is leading 4-1, It looks hopeless for the crazies.

8. Scary

The Exorcist (1973) vs. Psycho (1960)


Max von Sydow’s character, the priest, is dealing with his mother’s terminal illness in The Exorcist, while Norman Bates’ split personality lands him in the mental illness category in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece. The nod goes, obviously, to Norman, for a flawless performance in a flawless film. Not to take away from one of the more scary and complex supernatural horror flicks ever made. 4-2, is it too late for an insane comeback?

9. What About Jack?

Terms of Endearment (1983) vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for both pictures. The first contender is about the up and down relationship between a mother and her daughter, who deals with a terminal illness at a certain point. Jack plays a free-wheeling ex-astronaut who has a love affair with the mother while being his usual eccentric self. In the second, Jack is a con man who fakes insanity and winds up in a mental institution. While in prison they only contain your body, he finds the efforts to control his mind unbearable. Both are great movies, but it’s hard to surpass Milos Forman’s masterpiece from 1975. 4-3 and it’s down to the last shootout.

10. Ensemble Cast

Magnolia (1999) vs. Happiness (1998)


Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama shows a day in the lives of a number of interconnected characters. One of them (played by Philip Baker Hall), plays a former TV producer who is dying from cancer and tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Todd Solondz’s many characters in Happiness are all on the scale of a mental illness. It starts with a dysfunctional person and ends with the pedophile. These are both great films, that try to say something interesting about today’s society, but the melodramatic nature of Magnolia as opposed to Solondz’s dark humor, and fearlessness in the face of disturbing themes gives the win to Happiness. And we have a shocking 4-4 tie. Next year we’ll do a rematch, ok?

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Workers on the Screen Unite!

May 1st, 2012 by Ran

labor-day-723999

International Workers’ Day celebrates the importance of the simple worker in the grand scheme of economic things. It’s a day of solidarity that commemorates the massacre of workers on strike by the police in Chicago back in 1886. The uprising of the “commoners” workforce, and the subsequent creation of labor unions, gave the common worker some power over his all all-too-powerful boss and a chance to claim his rights. But with power comes… the abuse of it. Where labor unions are the strongest, you will find much corruption and decay, while in industries that lack it, you will find a lot of injustice and exploitation. The ideal lies, as usual, somewhere in the middle, in the cooperation between management and workforce. Hopefully this day will make us think about the workers rights within a workplace, along with their responsibilities. So here are some titles I chose that demonstrate the different facets of the workplace and the different workplace situations we all face on a daily basis:

The Working Class

1. The Navigators (2001) – I will start with the cinematic champion of the working class – Ken Loach. This is maybe not his best film, but it might be the one that is most dedicated to the worker and his or her plight. The story is about railway maintenance workers and how they deal with the process of privatization. Loach’s signature Realism is the style that best fits the simple worker.

2. High Hopes (1988) – The runner up to Ken Loach’s dedication to (or obsession with) the working class is Mike Leigh. His style is more humorous and witty than that of Loach’s but that does not hinder the strength of his films. This is a story of a working class family and their different choices and views on life, work and such. But Leigh does not focus on the workplace alone, he also shows the philosophical struggles of a Socialist in a Capitalist world.

Unemployment

3. The Town is Quiet (2001)Robert Guediguian is sort of the French equivalent of Ken Loach, and most of his films depict the plight of the working class in France. Marseille is the backdrop of this bleak drama, showing all angles of the lives led by different people in this disintegrating port city – from unemployment and immigrants, to mostly overlooked people, who struggle to survive. It’s disturbing but well worth watching.

Boss and Employee

4. Mad Men (2007 – ) – The goings-on at an up and coming advertising agency during the 60s in America is the backdrop of this surprise hit TV series. We get to see how social changes affect the change in the workplace, especially in regards to the women’s rights movement, their recognition by men, and their chances at having a career.

5. Fear and Trembling (2003) – A woman’s dream to work in Japan comes true, but quickly becomes a nightmare. The working culture clash and the strictness of her employers produce moments that are both hilarious and harrowing at the same time, which is quite an achievement. The wonderful Sylvie Testud stars in this comedy that believe it or not, is based on a true story.

Labor Unions

6. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) – Capitalism has two ways of dealing with labor unions – the first is looking for places where there is no such thing, and the second is using all its power to bust unions and deter other people of unionizing. Here we see both methods, as the biggest corporation in the world uses exploited Chinese workers on one hand and spies on its own workers on the other. This is an eye-opening documentary that also offers a glimmer of hope.

7. On the Waterfront (1954) – Young Marlon Brando stars in this classic film about an ex-boxer fighting corrupt and violent unions in the port of New Jersey. Elia Kazan directed this Oscar winning movie, supposedly as response to those who accused him of naming names of former Communist party members. Regardless of his motives, this is a powerful movie, that is based on a series of articles featured in The New York Sun.

Workplace Problems

8. Enlightened (2010 – )Laura Dern created and stars in this offbeat comedy. After suffering a nervous breakdown and going away to a new-agey retreat, a 40 year old woman comes back to her old work and life trying to start over, and this time make things better. Needless to say things don’t really go her way. She gets demoted to a job she finds boring and is not qualified for, and the corporate world doesn’t sit well with what she soaked up in her retreat.

Workplace Romance

9. Read My Lips (2001)Jacques Audiard, who rose to fame with A Prophet in 2009, tells this story of an unlikely relationship. An uptight and frustrated deaf woman (Emmanuelle Devos), who is bullied and feels like an outcast at her work, meets a brutish ex-convict (Vincent Cassel) who is trying to start his new life. He is not really qualified for the job, but she recognizes how he can be helpful to her. The partnership of misfits is portrayed beautifully by the two leads, and the tensions between them creates a complex and surprising thriller.

The Family Business

10. Arrested Development (2003 – ) – The dysfunctional Bluth family is coming back, after a six year hiatus. Work is the last thing on most of those unlovable and unloving family members’ minds, with the exception of Michael, who tries to keep the family and the company together amidst investigations of corruption, fraud and even treason. You really feel that someone (Mitchell Hurwitz) took the ‘how to make a sitcom’ guidebook, threw it out of the window, and made his own thing. The result is one of the funniest comedies ever made. And now it’s back!!!

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Popularity: 2% [?]