why don’t you play in hell (dir. sion sono, 2013)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

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“Give me a Japanese girl, small and strong. Bare arms and naked blade. Hair in her eyes. Blood on her cheek. Don’t worry. She can still see well enough to separate you from your heart.” (scribbled in a boy’s notebook after watching this one film of which you are about to read a review)

I don’t know where this began. This desire for a woman both deadly and cute. Maybe it began with Buffy. Maybe it began that one afternoon in the aisle of a grocery story in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee when a man told my mom she had such a cute daughter and I felt this rush of confused shame. Maybe I am always searching in art for the redemption of some shameful part of myself. People say they want to see themselves on screen, but I don’t know about that. Some of us never saw ourselves in the mirror, and so, when we watch movies the last thing we want to see is someone who looks like us. We want to see someone who feels like us.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a Sion Sono film. In an early scene, a group of young film obsessives (The Fuck Bombers) runs into a group of warring yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, led by their fearless leader Director Hirata, don’t bother trying to break up the fight. Nor do they do the sensible thing and run the other way. Instead, they film it. At first, the yakuza are annoyed. Then confused. And then, finally, compliant. They take direction as to how best to murder each other in front of the camera. Hold your sword here. Swipe like this. Yes. Fantastic. Cool. Ready? Roll tape. Action.

Sion Soho’s film concerns itself, as many of his films do, with love and perversion. In a Sono film, characters are defined, for the most part, by whatever all-consuming obsession warps their reality. Earlier of his films have seen him explore incest, religious cults, suicide, rape, upskirt kung-fu, and murderous hair extensions. This film does not really deal with that sort of thing. For the most part, the characters in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are perverted not in their love of themselves or others, but in their love of celluloid. They are perverted by their desire for a life that feels like the movies.

The film begins with a commercial for toothpaste that features an irresistible jingle. You can watch it here. Its star is Mitsuko. Mitsuko is the daughter of a yakuza boss. Her career as a child star gets sidetracked when her mom is arrested for murdering a bunch of yakuza who dropped by their house hoping to kill Mitsuko’s father. Later, we encounter Mitsuko as a young woman tied to a chair, surrounded by a group of thugs. It turns out she has a habit of running away. Possibly because her father has attempted, throughout her life, to turn her into a film star. Her entire childhood has been spent in a movie her father has been trying, and failing, to make. She has grown up trapped in the stories her father wants to tell about her.

In a madcap turn of events, Mitsuko manages to escape, for a time, and she tries to elude detection by asking a random man on the street to pretend to be her lover. This works about as well as you can imagine. He definitely falls in love with her. She definitely still gets discovered and recaptured and now her faux boyfriend is on the chopping block for having supposedly aided in her escape. Mitsuko tells her father, though, that this man is actually a super amazing director and he will make her a star if only he might see fit not to separate him from his head. Of course, this guy isn’t a director. But. Never fear. Through more madcap hijinks, the Fuck Bombers—as older, though no less deluded folk—find their way back on the scene. All the pieces come together for a finale in which a real-life yakuza battle is fought in order that it might be filmed as a film in which Mitsuko might emerge an action star.

Some have pointed out that the director character in Sono’s film bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also true that in the action-packed finale, in which the warring yakuza gangs fight for the benefit of the Fuck Bomber’s cameras, Director Hirata asks that the yakuza forego their guns for samurai swords and their subsequent fighting—in which fountains of blood are spilled and Mitsuko, at one point, decapitates an entire ring of gangsters with a single mighty swing of her sword—bears more than a passing resemblance to those fantastically bloody bits of Kill Bill set in Japan.

This is Sono’s most straightforwardly delightful film, and I think this is probably because, in the end, it’s all about looking good. Films—particularly certain Japanese samurai and yakuza films, as well as, yes, the many films of Tarantino—have a way of turning violence into something beautiful and admirable. Sono wants to explore the horror of this. And, in so doing, he has produced a film that looks and feels amazing, even as it constantly reminds you of its own stupidity. Mitsuko tells a character at one point that she was born stupid and will die stupid, but she has always wanted, at least once, to shine in a big way. At another moment, she also admits that she has always wanted, at least once, to really kiss someone. Not on screen, but in real life.

Mitsuko spends this whole movie trapped between a desire for something real and a desire for something that feels more real than real. She never manages to escape the fantasies of others. Sono, for all his skill, never quite brings her to life until the very end. Perhaps, in some way, that’s the twisted point of the whole thing. Mitsuko wanted to shine big and, as the curtains close, she does just that. Sono sacrifices her to the gods of film in a moment both dumb and heartbreaking. Her final words: “I looked good, didn’t I?”

marie antoinette (dir. sofia coppola, 2006)

 

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Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is in such bad taste. It’s perfect. The first time I saw it, I discounted it as a shallow indulgence in style and soft-focus. What a fool I was. To be sure, many people agreed with me. And many, I suppose, still do. But, here’s the thing. Marie Antoinette, love it or hate it, is a masterpiece. It is a vision fully realized. Here are four reasons.

reason one

Film is, first and foremost, a sensual experience, not all that different from a sunrise or a night of fireworks. Marie Antoinette contains scenes of both and more besides! We trundle through glimmering forests in lavender carriages. We race across golden green fields, our hands waving free. We feast upon colorful towers of macarons. We thrill to the mysterious invitation of a fan unfurled across rosy cheeks. Coppola has worked with Kirsten Dunst before, in Virgin Suicides, and she would work with her again later, in The Beguiled, but it’s here, in Marie Antoinette, that she may have captured best the beauty and spirit of her muse. Dunst plays the soon-to-be beheaded queen with a mix of naiveté, recklessness, and a fragile, if altogether willful, joy. Coppola frames her in moments sometime rigid and sometimes loose, sometimes formal and sometimes intimate. We see Antoinette with her hair piled high, her waist cinched tight, her décolletage exquisitely décollated, and we see her also in bed, in despair and wonder, in loneliness and anticipation, sometimes buried under blankets and sometimes all bare shoulders and ruddy legs, giggling at the prospect of some unfettered joy. We know what happens to her in the end, and Coppola knows her job here isn’t to remind us of that fact at every turn. Her job is only to remind us that all this beauty, as much as it might be decadent and escapist and rapturous, also serves as a prison, and it is no less beautiful because of that. That it is so beautiful, in fact, only makes it hurt all the more.

reason two

There are three moments in this film where Kirsten Dunst breaks the sacred etiquette of film and stares straight at the camera and into the eyes of the viewer. The first time happens right at the start, in an opening scene of Antoinette in her home in Austria. She’s in a chair, in repose, among blues and pinks, cakes and plushed velvet. At one side of the screen, a maid in black-and-white, fits on her mistress a shoe. Dunst licks a bit of frosting from her fingers, and then she catches our eye and gives a slight tilt of her head as if to say, “What are you looking at?”

The second comes in her exchange from Austria to France. She is to be married off to the young Dauphin, Louis, so as to cement the alliance between their two countries. We have arrived at this moment after a long, beautifully dull carriage ride. Antoinette approaches the tent constructed across the border. Once inside, they strip away her dog. And then her rings. Her necklace. Her hat. Her shoes. Her socks. They slip off her dress and her underclothes. It is traditional, she is told, for a bride to leave everything behind. Coppola films this scene from behind, from the point of view of Austria. She cuts next to a shot from the French side. Antoinette walks out of the tent, wearing her new costume, right into the center of the frame. The shot is almost Wes Anderson-esque in its suffocating precision, and so it centers us in Antoinette’s experience of being crushed from all sides into a new shape. This shot should do away with the notion that Coppola prefers soft filters and gauzy ephemerality because it’s all she knows how to do. Here she shows how hard and precise she can be when it appeals to her and here it appeals to her because Antoinette has walked out of her childhood and into an unforgiving adult world in which, above all else, she will be put on display. Dunst stares at us in this moment, dead-eyed and uncertain, as if to say, “Well. Here I am. Is this what you want?” Everything of the film is here in this one shot. It’s magnificent.

The third moment occurs after the birth of a child not belonging to Marie Antoinette. We have seen, at this point, many examples of Louis’ indifferent, if not simply ineffectual, affections. And we have seen Antoinette greeted, each morning, by the crowd of onlookers that gather at the foot of her bed. We have heard the whispers that follow her as to her failure to produce an heir. We have read the letters from her mother lamenting the same. And we have just seen Dunst act the hell out of a scene in which she allows only her joy, and none of her sadness, to greet the happy couple and their new baby. But now we are alone with her in her bedroom, and we watch her crumple against the door and proceed to cry. It is a private moment, for a woman allowed no privacy. But, of course, we are there, too. And she finds our gaze and holds it. There is no sarcasm here. No condescension. There is something less and more. There is a woman and she is looking at us. Coppola wants us to be unsettled. And she wants us to never forget that Antoinette, while so often trapped in the gazes of others, is never without her own gaze.

reason three

Coppola scores this film, for the most part, with a procession of 80s bands like The Cure, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In a film where so much care and expense has been paid in order to achieve such a period-perfect look—all those hats! every scene shot on location in France, in Versaille, or Chantilly, and so on—why deign to wake us from this dream? Why take us out of the moment? Why shatter the verisimilitude? I think because, as in those moments when Dunst stares out at us, the inclusion of dated pop electrifies these proceedings. They provide a shock of life, of rules broken, for good or ill. And, so, their presence helps ensure that the spirit of Antoinette shines out among the aforementioned hats and palatial beauties. Whatever else she is, or was, Antoinette is a girl whose heart, however excessive in its desire and however chained by its place in history, is her own. As those meta moments of wall breaking remind us that her gaze is her own, the soundtrack reminds us that her emotions are her own, as well.

As well, there is, I think, the fact that Coppola wants us to imagine Antoinette, herself, as a kind of 1980s pop star, and to imagine the time of her reign in France, as a gilded mirror held up to that decade, what with all its excess of greed and lust and the inevitable crash to come. And so we have this Antoinette caught in the prison of her own privilege. She is always on display. She is always the center of gossip. She is beloved and hated as the emblem of a regime she had no part in building. She is Madonna. Not the holy mother, but the wicked pop star. She is a symbol, for some, of all that’s wrong in society, and for others, for all that’s beautiful and empowering. In one way or another all of Coppola’s films deal with women trapped in the gaze of others, who nonetheless posses a gaze and beauty all their own. So it is here, too. Antoinette is never wicked nor role model. She is, for better and worse, only herself.

reason four

In The Beguiled, as here, we have a group of people seemingly cut off, and protected, from history. In one, a seminary of girls hidden by the Virginia woods from The Civil War. In the other, a queen and her court sheltered away in palaces and retreats from the mob calling for their heads. In both, the narrative turns on how the world that shelters them also imprisons them, and in some cases, dooms them. Marie Antoinette, in this film, only visits Paris but once. She is a palace girl. She is a diva out of necessity. What else can she do? She could speak out, of course. She could empathize with the mob. But who has ever empathized with her? Who has ever taught her by example? None. How could she look at a mob of people and not just see another mass of humanity, like all the others, looking at her and seeing whatever they want to see? Another set of eyes, for her, only means another set of demands. Some may accuse Coppola, I think, of trying to have her cake and eat it, too, calling on us to care for a woman of privilege, and to bask with her in the decadent and destructive nature of the beauty of her world, while only cursorily calling it all into question. But I don’t think so. Coppola doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook. Nor does she let us off the hook. She simply stages the hook in the wings. She trusts that we can see it for ourselves, even if we never see it. She trusts that, at the end, as the carriage takes Antoinette to her fate, we see what we must. A girl, with her face against a window, watching the world fall away. “Admiring the view?” her husband asks. “No,” she says. “I’m just saying goodbye.”

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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lady bird (dir. greta gerwig, 2017)

ladybird (a24)

What a generous and attentive film. There are stories everywhere you look. It’s kind of like Star Wars in that way. Every corner of the Lady Bird galaxy teems with life. But it never feels crowded. For all the half-dozen or more characters on display here—each interesting enough, really, to star in their own film—Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut, manages without fail to give them enough room to breathe. Sometimes it’s an extra scene here or there. Sometimes an extra line, or wink, or smile. Perhaps an eye roll. Sometimes it’s the exact right amount of nothing as one sometimes finds in an empty parking lot.

This is Sacramento, at the turn of the millennium. Lady Bird is a catholic school girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her parents try their best as parents so often do. Lady Bird feels, as many children often do, that whatever it is their parents are trying, it’s not working. Lady Bird has a friend or two. One of them is the best. She finds a boyfriend. They tell stories to each other about the stars. She tries her hand at song and dance. Her best friend does better. Her boyfriend does best. Lady Bird isn’t unhappy with her life. But, she isn’t happy either. If you asked her, I think she would probably say that her life, her real life, hasn’t started yet. I think she’s trying her best to get things going, though.

I first saw Saoirse Ronan in Atonement, though I didn’t know it at the time. I saw her again in Grand Budapest Hotel. And then again in Brooklyn . Also, Hannah. Here she is Lady Bird. Every time I see her it feels like the first time. I think this is a magic not everyone possesses. Imagine living every day as though it was not the last day of your life, but the first. Imagine possessing such brave wonder.

We begin our journey with Lady Bird waking up next to her mom. They are in a hotel bed. They are as close as two people can be without falling into each other. Later, Lady Bird’s mom drives her home. Or tries to. Lady Bird jumps out along the way. Much later, Lady Bird learns to drive herself. And when she drives around Sacramento, we see an echo of this earlier drive. And in that echo, echoes of all the times her mom drove her anywhere. This is cinema as it can be. As poetry. All rhythm and rhyme. The world glimpsed by a girl through the windows of her mom’s car. The memory of home.

Gerwig, through the glimpses she gives into the lives of all of her characters, allows us a similar gift. We watch them grow into themselves. We watch as they, and we, come to see them for who they truly are. This is a film that rewards attention. This is a film with which you fall deeper in love the more you think about all that you have seen. I suspect this is one of those films, like The Shawshank Redemption, which will grow only more beloved with time.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, after Lady Bird has discovered new kinds of friends and new kinds of pain, after she and her mom have fallen out again, as they seem to keep doing, one of the more awesome nuns at the school tells Lady Bird something that she needs to know. She tells her that maybe attention is a form of love. This strikes me as one of the harder truths to learn and to accept. People are always telling us to pay attention. As though it should cost us something to see things, and people, as they truly are. I don’t know that we always consider the costs, but I think this is a cost most of us want to be willing to pay. I suspect, though, that for many children, as with Lady Bird, it is a cost they don’t always want to bear.

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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more on arrival

 

‘Arrival’ raises profile of linguists, making them almost cool, in The Washington Post

In preparation for the shoot, a design team visited Coon’s office at McGill University in Montreal, where the film was shot, poring over her bookshelf and even inspecting the kind of bag she carries in the field. In one scene, set at the military encampment at the foot of the hovering alien spacecraft, you’ll see some of Coon’s handiwork in the background. “Imagine a military officer has helicoptered you here,” Coons recalls the set designers telling her. “You’re getting ready to start working with aliens. You have a team of 50 military cryptographers at your service. You’re in charge. What’s written on the whiteboard?”

Great article about the research undertaken by the creators of the film Arrival.

 

How I Wrote Arrival (and What I Learned Doing It) – The Talkhouse

My mother read to me when I was young, like mothers do. But instead of Dr. Seuss or Betsy Byars, it was Heinlein. Bradbury. Asimov. Stories of new worlds, new ideas, and possibilities for the future. It was a key ingredient in my childhood, but one I learned to keep quiet in my hometown in Oklahoma where, occasionally, adults used air quotes when saying the word science.

Go see Arrival. Then come back and read this. The film’s writer, Eric Heisserer, walks you through his journey in adapting Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” and, along the way, tells a story of his own–about science and art and letting smart people say smart things.

the hope at the end of everything

the hope at the end of everything

Hello, readers.

There’s a famous quote I don’t quite remember that may be attributable to either Joss Whedon or Neil Gaiman, in regards to either Buffy or Coraline, respectively, which goes something like this: That she cried was not in any way meant as an indication of weakness, or how little bravery she possessed, but, on the contrary, it was a sign of her strength, of how much bravery she possessed, that in the depths of such sadness she chose to continue fighting.

I was reminded of this because of two articles.

A.O. Scott’s NYtimes review of Tomorrowland: ‘Tomorrowland,’ Brad Bird’s Lesson in Optimism

And Naomi Novik, writing at Tor.com: A New Reality: The Optimism of Zen Cho

A.O. Scott’s sums up his particular sadness with Tomorrowland–a sadness made all the sadder in light of his love of Brad Bird’s other works, especially Ratatouille– in his final passage:

False cheer can be just as insidious as easy despair. And the world hardly suffers from a shortage of empty encouragement, of sponsored inducements to emulate various dreamers and disrupters, of bland universal appeals to the power of individuality. “Tomorrowland” works entirely at that level, which is to say in the vocabulary of advertisement. Its idea of the future is abstract, theoretical and empty, and it can only fill in the blank space with exhortations to believe and to hope. But belief without content, without a critical picture of the world as it is, is really just propaganda. “Tomorrowland,” searching for incitements to dream, finds slogans and mistakes them for poetry.

Contrast this, with the beautiful way Novik captures the particular wonder of Zen Cho’s writing in a story like “The House of Aunts.”

Cho doesn’t airbrush away those inconvenient realities—her vampires really do eat people, and they really are dead. But they can still be people, and still have friends and go to university and fall in love, because that is delightful, and capturing that middle ground is what makes the story so satisfying. There is nothing of the grimdark here and also nothing of the plastic and fake. You’re allowed to feel uneasy about the eating of people going on in the background and you’re also allowed to like the characters and be with them in their story.

You feel as you read that the author wants you to be happy, even if she is not going to lie to you to make you feel more comfortable

So very true.

titleReaders, as you may or may not know, one of my favorite stories happens to be the story of Pandora and her box.

Most people know the first part of the story.

That a girl, upon opening a box, unleashed a myriad of evil magic and demons.

It is useful to remember, though, that in the darkest depths of her despair, after all hell had broken loose and she had arrived at the end of everything, there was, at the bottom of the box, only one thing remaining.

Hope.

It is a fact, sad or true or magical, I suppose, depending on your point of view, that the sharpest glimmer of hope might only be appreciated, might only truly be seen, in those moments marked by the deepest darkness.

But, truer still, maybe, is that hope, and the courage to hold on to it, to seek it out, to believe in it, only really matters at those moments. And so it’s only those stories that recognize the darkness which gives birth to hope and the tears which demonstrate strength, like those of Zen Cho, which prove both optimistic and brave.

it’s not magnolia

Hello, readers.

It’s Wednesday. It’s occasionally rainy with patches of it will rain again in a minute just you wait. I’ve taken a deep dive into Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It is, as most of Murakami’s books, both mundane and exceedingly weird. A man loses contact with friends. He meets a man who tells a story about his dad meeting a man who knows he’s going to die and tells a story about how when you know that you’re going to die you can see the true colors of a person’s heart.

Also.

Joss Whedon is still talking about Avengers.

…it’s not Magnolia, where you’re telling all these separate stories that are just vaguely intertwined. They’re doing some of that job for me. By the way, if it was Magnolia, it would be the best movie ever made, but I can’t reach for the stars, people. I’m just a man.

Also, also, and on the same topic.

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir

Even Joss Whedon, an undoubted pop-culture genius, cannot create that kind of significance from whole cloth, at least not after two dozen or more generally similar superhero movies have worn out the cultural resonance of the form. It would be foolish for me to sit here in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows and proclaim that the era of the comic-book movie is coming to an end. That’s not happening anytime soon (and anyway I threw that jacket away). It might be accurate to say instead that superhero cinema has reached a decadent plateau, a long-term steady state of self-nourishing bigness and reverberant meaninglessness. Whedon moves on from the Marvel empire not as its Augustus or its Spartacus, but more like one of the later, non-terrible Christian emperors who won some battles, made some reforms and convinced everybody that the glory of Rome would endure forever. Was it worth doing? That depends on what you think of Rome.

Some of that rings true for me. Except, I don’t think the cultural resonance has worn out of the form. Because the form of superhero films is not anything in particular. Superheroes are a genre in the way that romance is a genre which is to say it’s a genre that can be built on top of any other genre. It’s just going to take a different of superhero story to resonate in the way that Dark Knight did (a superhero noir/crime thriller) or the first X-Men (a superhero coming out)

There will be amazing superhero movies to come, a few of which will take everyone by surprise. And I don’t mean in the way that Guardians of the Galaxy was amazing. But, I mean, in the way that Buffy was amazing. And the first X-men with Bryan Singer was amazing. I mean that someone, somewhere, is going to make a superhero movie that’s personal and has something to say.

I’d bet on an adaptation of a novel written in the aftermath of this superhero renaissance.

Also, also, also.

There’s a bit of blue sky out there, between the clouds.

I’m so excited to see what Whedon does next.

 

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post-avengers

Hello, readers.

Last night, with a couple non-sleep obsessed friends, we attended the midnight premiere of, as it’s known in England, MARVEL AVENGERS: THE AGE OF ULTRON, lest confusion.

avengers_confusion

It was acceptably awesome and gloriously Whedony (sweet and self-aware, funny and cruel, full of creepy lullabies). There’s also some weird stuff that I won’t talk about, but was cool to see Whedon try it out.

Also. I love Ultron and his creepy puppet talk and how so very much of his personality was a subtle twist of Iron Man.

Also, also. I adore midnight films, in particular, midnight crowds. This one gasped and ooohed and laughed, and it was fantastic.

Also, also, also. Check out Brian Hiatt interviewing Joss in Rolling Stone.

On keeping french hours

There’s not a number. Draft is too strong a word…there’s so many changes, there’s so much. I went home from the set every night – because we were keeping French hours, and we got home at a decent hour started at the same time every morning – and I’d go and write, every night. It was partially me, partially notes from the actors, partially the studio, like everybody had a hand in “This could be better.” But I think in some ways its great to stay fluid, to see what’s working and lean into it. There’s stuff between Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch that’s some of my favorite stuff in the movie, and it’s there because they’re the only actors I had. When we started shooting in Italy, I had Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Jeremy Renner; everybody else was busy. So, I’m like “Okay, I guess these guys are gonna have a scene, and I can work with that.”

On going left-of-center

You know, with hindsight… No, believe me, it’s not that weird, but I was like, we’re definitely going to go left of center here. And that was an adjustment for people. So, I’m like, if this doesn’t work, they’re all going to go, “Well, you went left of center!” I just wanted to make it as interesting and complicated – not complicated, complex— as possible, and really get inside these characters’ heads.

On life, post-Avengers.

I just felt like this is the opportunity I have for the first time since I started working, to stop and go in a vacuum, not thinking about deals or friends or genres or networks or anything except what’s in here. What would I do? I don’t know how I’ll approach it, but that’s a huge deal for me.

A lot of smart people have already said that this is a character film wrapped in an extra forty minutes of HULK SMASH. Of course, smashing is part of who these people are. At least they refrain from much in the way of pummeling for information.

Happy Thursday, readers.

Go see the movie.

It’s superheroes. It’s evil robots. There’s a sex joke involving a zucchini. It’s Whedon. You won’t be disappoint.

Unless you want to see a black-and-white Russian film. In which case, well.

 

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p.s. If you’ve never read this, you should.