Movie of the Month: Hello Again (1987)

Britnee: There are many comedies that play around with the morbid humor of characters coming back from the dead. We actually did an episode of The Swampflix Podcast a few months ago where we talked about My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a great example of a film that makes that gruesome subject light and funny. While they can be hilarious, what My Boyfriend’s Back and similar films do that I’m not a huge fan of is attach their undead humor to traditional zombie lore (bodies starting to rot, hunger for human flesh, etc.). Thankfully, there is a funny movie about someone returning from the dead who is in great health and looks fabulous from start to end: Hello Again (1987). It also happens to be my second Movie of the Month selection that stars Shelley Long, the ultimate 80s funny lady.

Lucy (Shelley Long) is a clumsy housewife who’s married to her college sweetheart, Jason (Corbin Bernsen), a plastic surgeon rising through the ranks of high society in NYC. Lucy is constantly tripping over her own feet, spilling food on her light-colored clothing, and in one of the most memorable scenes, ripping her dress in two by stepping on the hem. She most certainly does not fit in with the snobby groups her husband rubs shoulders with. While visiting her occultist sister Zelda (Judith Ivey), Lucy chokes on a piece of a South Korean chicken ball and dies. Thankfully, Zelda comes across an ancient book in her shop in which she finds a spell that could bring Lucy back from the dead. In order for the spell to work, there are three things that need to happen approximately one year after death: (1) the deceased must have died before their time; (2) the person performing the spell has to have pure love for the deceased; (3) the Earth, the moon, and the dog star must be aligned in a perfect isosceles triangle. Zelda makes it happen, and Lucy returns from the grave. She then tries her best to navigate through life (again) while developing a romantic relationship with the ER doctor who witnessed her death (Gabriel Byrne).

There’s not much explanation of how the magic works post-resurrection, except that Lucy needs to find true love before the next full moon. Nothing is mentioned on how long her new life will last, if she will continue to age, etc. I love that the film doesn’t spend a ton of time getting lost in some bizarre, made up lore. Instead, we get to watch Lucy be an undead klutz with the most incredible fashion sense, and it’s wonderful.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on how Hello Again handles the subject of coming back from the dead? Was it boring or creative?

Brandon: I didn’t find the way it handles Lucy’s resurrection boring or creative, really. That’s because I’m not sure the film handles that subject at all.  Lucy could’ve just as easily been deep-frozen, or lost in the woods, or simply comatose for a year and it wouldn’t have had that much effect on the film’s tone or plot. Hello Again is less about her being undead than it is about her being unflappable, sidestepping all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery.  And it’s cute as heck.  We already have plenty gory screwball comedies about the decaying bodies of the living dead — from Death Becomes Her to Dead Man on Campus to Idle Hands to the aforementioned My Boyfriend’s Back.  This particular zom-com feels way more fixated on how much your life & social standing would change if you unexpectedly disappeared for a year than it does on the practical, grisly details of its supernatural conflict, and that’s fine.  If anything, the last 18 months of global social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that thought experiment more relevant and relatable.  Watching Lucy emerge from the grave to feel out her place in a world that has moved on without her is eerily reminiscent of what it currently feels like to leave my house to see friends & family for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a little awkward, a little absurd, surprisingly sad, but ultimately good for our souls.

If there’s anything I wished Hello Again would’ve pushed a little harder, it wouldn’t be the flesh-decaying zombie angle, but rather the Mr. Bean style physical humor Shelley Long gets to indulge in as a hopeless klutz.  She’s incredibly loveable (and funny!) as a clumsy goofball who can barely keep herself together among the big-city sophisticates she refers to as “jazzy people.”  I guess my ideal version of the film would be a Mr. Bean-meets-Groundhog Day premise where Lucy repeatedly dies in pathetically silly ways (steps on a rake, drowns in a birdbath, gets crushed by a falling piano, etc) only to get resurrected for yet another chance at self-actualization/true love until she gets it right.  Instead, the movie brushes both its supernatural & slapstick shenanigans aside for some heartfelt melodrama about Lucy re-establishing her place in the world (with a brief flirtation with tabloid fame along the way).  It’s cute, but not nearly as funny as watching her split her dress open at a fancy party to expose her underwear to all the major financial donors at her husband’s hospital so they can drop their monocles and exclaim “Well, I never!”  The only other major Shelley Long star vehicle I can recall seeing is Troop Beverly Hills, and it’s only Lucy’s unfashionable clumsiness that really distinguishes those two performances for me (as adorable as they both are), so I would’ve loved to see it exaggerated to greater effect.

Hanna, what do you think Shelley Long brings to the table as the central performer here?  Hello Again asks a lot of her as its star.  She has to convey sincere romance with a dead-serious Gabriel Byrne as a rival doctor at her husband’s hospital; she has to comically outshine a wide range of the exact quirky side-character archetypes that she usually plays herself (especially Judith Ivey as her sister Zelda); she has to pose both as a dowdy housewife and a burgeoning fashionista.  Does she somehow pull it all off?  

Hanna: I’m not super familiar with Shelley Long (apart from her role in The Money Pit, which I love), but I was super impressed by her tireless commitment to the various zany demands of Hello Again. Her adaptability in whatever situation she’s thrown into is key to her character and the success of this movie; it seems obvious that one of Long’s strengths as a performer in general is being totally game for anything (including making a fool of herself), and that quality carries over to Lucy’s indomitable spirit in the face of heartbreak, fame, and the occult nonsense that brought her back to life. It helps that Long is eminently likeable! She’s especially charming when she’s living my nightmare of exposing her big white panties to a slew of hot-shot doctors at a dinner party, but I was just as happy to see her strut around her sister’s bookstore in an absurdly fabulous dress after her Big Makeover.

Even though Long obviously did a great job, I’m not sure if all of the threads of Hello Again came together in a satisfying way. Like Brandon said, there’s a lot going on: Lucy’s story is picked up by the global news and becomes a viral celebrity, forcing her to dodge paparazzi at the hospital; Jason (Corbin Bernsen) shacked up with Lucy’s opportunistic best friend, Kim (Sela Ward) in Lucy’s absence, then tries to win Lucy back once she becomes famous; and of course there’s the love subplot with the dreamy ER doctor Gabriel Byrne, which includes a Beauty and the Beast-ish threat of Lucy being sent back to the grave if she fails to find true love before the next full moon. There are a few more tiny subplots, but for the most part they were a little underdeveloped, and sometimes forgotten. This is especially true of Lucy’s love curse, which is briefly mentioned to add some stakes to her living situation but largely goes unaddressed without consequence. I really loved the characters in Hello Again and I was entertained by each scene individually, but I never felt like I had a firm grasp on the overall direction of the story. But! That’s okay – it was an absolute delight anyway.

Boomer, do you think Hello Again could have used a little more development, or was it perfect as an erratic late-80s comedy? Is there an element of Lucy’s life after death that you wish had been explored further?

Boomer: There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and one of the topics of discussion that we have danced around is Long’s big performance near the end in which she is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Kim’s latest (dead) husband. It’s a true delight in which she shows off her talent for funny voices and physical comedy that’s very large but refrains from going too broad. In a movie that is, in many ways, largely unfocused, it serves as a capstone on the various small bits of physical comedy scattered throughout. That’s kind of the film’s bread-and-butter, though, as it moves from a small, heartfelt reunion, to scenes of Lucy speaking with her former boss about how, despite being irreplaceable, she was replaced within two weeks of her death, to her realization that her understated suburban housewife style has become all the rage in Los Angeles, for dubiously believable pop psychology reasons. It’s fair to say that by the time they’re having a full-on Oh God! style press conference, things have gotten pretty muddled. 

I did think that the brevity of the time between Lucy’s death and resurrection was a bit of a misstep. This is a bit of a strange reference point for a film in this genre, but I kept thinking about Flight of the Navigator, and how that film’s eight year jump forward allowed for the passage of enough time for significant changes to occur and thus return that film’s protagonist to a world that was sufficiently different and alienating. It might have been weird, narratively, for Zelda to still be clinging to the idea of bringing back her sister after so long a period of time, but while it’s not inconceivable that a year might be enough time for, say, a playground to be converted into a fairly-far-along construction site, it does seem like far too little time for various other events to have occurred. The one that seemed the most unbelievable to me was that her son, who was presumably 17 or 18 at the beginning of the film given that he was still deciding whether or not to go to college, had compressed what, in the real world, would be at least six years of professional development into a mere twelve months. A longer time before resurrection would also go some distance toward making Kim and Jason a little more well-rounded and multi-dimensional, as opposed to their largely static roles in the film as it exists now. In the film, the Jason moves on so quickly that it would probably raise a few eyebrows, and instead of having Kim simply hop into bed (and matrimony) with Jason, she could have had a scene with Lucy in which she talked about having a hard time finding her footing and eventually falling for Jason because the two spent so much time together after Lucy’s passing. I could definitely see both her and Jason played more sympathetically, with both of them as flawed individuals who brought out the worst in each other as her lust for wealth cross-pollinated with Jason’s ambitions to create an LA power, and powerfully misguided, couple. 

Lagniappe

Brandon: Even if it can be narratively frustrating, there is something charming about how disinterested Hello Again is in its own plot vs. how in love it is with its collection of quirky characters.  One of the funniest line deliveries in the entire film is when Zelda crashes a stuffy society party and introduces herself to the shocked sophisticates, “My name’s Zelda! I have a story for you. Hey, don’t worry. I’m just Lucy’s eccentric sister.”  I love how blatant the film’s priorities are in that exchange. 

Boomer: I literally said “Oh my god, Sela, you look amazing” the moment she appeared on screen. I also love Judith Ivey. If you’re able to track it down, I’d recommend giving her audiobook version of the Stephen King short story “Luckey Quarter” (sic) a try; it’s very charming. 

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November: 
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

Baby’s Day Out (1994)

When I was a kid, we had a Baby’s Day Out promotional beach towel in the house, a glaring outlier among our more generic poolside laundry. I have no idea how we acquired such a precious pop-art object, but it did its job as an advertisement. In fact, it over-achieved. Long after the novelty of this box office bomb had been forgotten to time by the majority of 1990s America, Baby’s Day Out remained a household name within our family – all thanks to a sun-faded, increasingly ratty beach towel. I was not shocked, then, to recently find a DVD copy of the film lurking in my family’s physical media giveaway pile without having encountered it any other context in the decades since. I was a little shocked by the actual content of the film, though, which is just as much hyperviolent torture porn as it is wholesome Family Entertainment. We might as well have had a cutesy beach towel commemorating the release of The Silence of the Lambs.

The truth is Baby’s Day Out doesn’t deserve to be remembered, as it’s essentially just the reheated leftovers of much more successful, beloved films. In this Frankenstein experiment, producer John Hughes shamelessly attempts to recreate his past Home Alone & Ferris Bueller successes by setting a tiny infant baby loose in downtown Chicago with accident-prone gangsters on its tail. The gangsters desperately want to hold the heroic Baby Bink hostage for a ransom-money payoff from his rich-asshole parents. Meanwhile, Baby Bink continually escapes their grasp to visit the various locations of his favorite bedtime storybook: the bus stop, the zoo, the park, the construction site, etc. Each set piece is introduced with a serene storybook illustration, then offers various life-threatening perils for the Home Alone-knockoff gangsters to stumble directly into as they watch their Big Score crawl away totally unharmed.

The plot-necessary connective tissue between the film’s set pieces is a chore, but the Looney Tunes chase scenes are hilariously over-the-top in their bone-crunching hyperviolence when considered in isolation. Baby’s Day Out is a cutesy tour of Chicago for Baby Bink, but it’s a hellish endurance contest for the boneheaded mobster villains who seek to exploit him. They take sledgehammers to their skulls. They fall off rooftops and smash their genitals against the AC window units below. Their bones are shattered by animatronic gorillas at the zoo. The finale transforms an everyday construction site into a towering medieval torture chamber. At one point, the movie even abandons the conceit that Baby Bink is blissfully unaware of all this hideous, cosmic-justice pain when he deliberately lights Joe Mantegna’s genitals on fire so he can gleefully crawl off to the next stop on his Chicagoan tourist itinerary. So, he’s either a ruthless infant vigilante or just a fucked up little hedonist with no regard for the trail of dead he leaves on his selfish sightseeing daytrip – no in-between.

There was obviously a lot of naïve hope that Baby’s Day Out would be a major hit. Everything from its canceled tie-in video game to its teased Baby’s Trip to China sequel hints at a sad, misguided Movie Studio optimism. Instead, it lives on as a disturbing novelty, remembered only by the 90s Kids™ whose homes were cursed with its promotional beach towels & bargain-bin DVDs. When scanning Google Image Search for said beach towel, I could only find these nightmarish auction lots of props worn & operated by Vern Troyer as the baby’s stunt double (his first job in the entertainment industry, poor guy). That shock is a perfect encapsulation of what revisiting this film as an adult feels like. You expect something cute & harmless, but instead find a hard stare into the pitch-black abyss of human cruelty & folly. It’s just as deeply unsettling as it is delightfully inane.

-Brandon Ledet

Jour de Fête (1949)

I knew when I was watching Jacques Tati play a romantic ghost in Sylvie and the Phantom that I wasn’t getting an especially arcuate representation of the comedian’s usual work. That’s why it was such an unmissable event for me when The Prytania Theatre was screening Tati’s directorial debut feature Jour de Fête in a proper theatrical environment, even if the lousy six-person attendance number indicated that it wasn’t much of a priority for the rest of the city. As Tati is best known for playing the recurring slapstick caricature Monsieur Hulot in his later works, Jour de Fête might have itself been an unconventional entry point for understanding the general shape of his oeuvre. Still, its deeply silly, anarchic physical humor seems much more typical to Tati’s reputation as a high-brow slapstick artist than Sylvie & The Phantom’s casting of him as the undead spirit of an ancient dreamboat (dutifully accompanied by his loyal puppy ghost, who gets most of the laughs). Tati may have been a rookie director when he made Jour de Fête, but he arrived on the scene with a distinct, fully developed comedic voice—one that can apparently still earn belly laughs 70 years later in a near-empty theater.

Tati stars in the film as a bumbling mailman in a small Central France village. The supposed conflict of the premise is that the mailman is overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that arrives with a traveling carnival that passes through his tiny village. Truthfully, it’s not only the carnival that overwhelms the mailman, but also the bored whims of his own community. Jour de Fête is a drunken slapstick comedy about a rural village that bands together to troll their own mailman for being a nerd who strives to be good at his job while everyone else is partying. The carnival aspect is only festive background decoration for the relentless pranks villagers & carnival folk alike torment the mailman with for their own amusement. We’re introduced to the townsfolk & the carnies well before the mailman arrives, painting a false picture of a simple people who take wholesome pleasure out of a calm farm-life. As soon as Tati starts biking his delivery route that perception fades as everyone around him takes turns trolling him for taking his job seriously in any way they can manage: tricking him into doing their work, tricking him into getting blackout drunk, encouraging goats to eat his mail, and often just laughing directly in his face. It would be unbearably cruel if it weren’t so damn funny.

There is one truly inspired gag that elevates Jour de Fête as a standout among its ilk. One of the carnival’s main attractions is a makeshift cinema tent they place in town square, where the mailman watches an industrial “documentary” on American post offices that falsely portray U.S. delivery men as daredevil bodybuilders who disperse mail in sexy, death-defying feats of strength at incredible speeds. Not to be outdone, this French mailman spends the rest of the film haphazardly dispersing packages at a needlessly hyperactive speed, shouting “American style!” at any villager inconvenienced by his newfound gusto. The villagers themselves also make for some excellent people-watching, as Jour de Fête was shot on location in the small commune village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre and cast many of the locals as extras & bit roles. Much of the film is a standard slapstick farce otherwise, one so conventional it includes a genuine rake gag. Tati is a little taller & ganglier than the Stooges, Keatons, and Marx Brothers before him and, as a director, affords the proceedings some welcome visual & narrative symmetry. In almost every other way, though, Jour de Fête is a traditional, even vaudevillian slapstick comedy – one that may have even been considered old-fashioned for its time. It’s also timeless in that’s still incredibly funny, proof that the old standards still work when they’re well executed. My only regret in seeking it out as an introductory Tati picture is that I couldn’t have seen it with a bigger crowd to amplify the laugher.

-Brandon Ledet

Utopia (1951)

I picked up a dirt cheap, used DVD copy of the Laurel & Hardy comedy Utopia (aka Atoll K, aka Robinson Crusoeland) thinking it’d likely be as good of an introduction to the comedy duo’s 23 film catalog as any. I’ve done my best to catch up with comedy staples like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello over the years,  but somehow the filmography of Laurel & Hardy has always escaped me. This was an ill-advised point of entry as an outsider, as it turns out that Utopia was the final film in Laurel & Hardy’s catalog, a misfire that put an end to their career. It’s difficult to even know which version of the film is the definitive one, since they’re are four separate cuts with four different runtimes, none of which were positively received. Filmed in Europe with a blacklisted American director years after the comedy duo’s heyday, Utopia was engineered to function entirely as last gasp cash grab. It was anything but. The shoot was supposed to take twelve weeks, but instead lasted an entire year, dragging out any chance to make a quick buck off the shriveling Laurel & Hardy legacy before it disappeared entirely, with no chance to financially succeed. You can feel that labor in every dull frame of the picture too; it plays more like a hostage video than a slapstick comedy.

The main problem with Utopia is that it works way too hard for way too long to establish what should be a simple premise. Laurel & Hardy inherit a rickety yacht & an uncharted island from a deceased uncle, where they intend to establish a paradisal version of Mortville to ease their economic troubles. It takes an absolute eternity for them to reach that goal, as the movie wastes tons of time in unnecessarily expensive sight gags suffered by their traveling ship for more than half the runtime. It takes a solid 40 minutes for the plot to fully set up Laurel & Hardy alone in the island with two other dirty men & one beautiful lady. It takes a full hour before that crew decides to establish their own country, Crusoeland. That only leaves 20 minutes for the film’s basic premise to play itself out, which really wouldn’t be a problem if the lead-up were shorter or less labored. I was simply too exhausted by Utopia’s narrative mechanics of setting up the political follies of a small island country to be amused by the inhabitants of that island treating a lobster like a pet dog or trying to pile into a single bed. Instead of achieving the knee-slapping energy of a light-hearted farce, Utopia presents a frustrating existential crisis where everyone from the (multiple!) directors to the actors to the audience has to work way too hard for laughs that never arrive or feel worth the effort.

As poor of a Laurel & Hardy introduction as Utopia turned out to be, it at least thematically clued me in on some of the duo’s charms. They way they function like a married couple (“Don’t I always take care of you? You’re the first one I think of.”) and turn their dire economic peril into (sometimes literal) gallows humor is endearing, at least. I can also get behind their central goal to establish a country with “no passports, no prisoners, no taxes, no laws, and no murder.” It’s a shame that those sentiments are buried under a film so visibly tired & directionless. Every potential is wasted, from Laurel & Hardy’s vaudevillian energy to the absence of a performance from French singer Suzy Declare, the only female performer of note onscreen. By the time previously absent narration intrudes halfway through the runtime to summarize the young country’s efforts to tame the island they inhabit the whole thing feels like a mess that should have been cancelled the first month it fell behind schedule. No one steering the ship wanted to be there and I didn’t want to be watching them go through the motions, especially not as a first time audience for an iconic comedy duo I’ve never witnessed in their prime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mermaid (2016)

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It’s downright shocking how little of an impact The Mermaid is making in American theaters. Disregarding the fact that director Stephen Chow has two legitimate cult classics under his belt, Kung Fu Hustle & Shaolin Soccer, the film is also, no big deal, the single highest grossing film Chinese theaters of all time. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date (though I’ve heard great things about Journey to the West & haven’t seen it yet). In a better world The Mermaid would be making waves in American theaters at the very least out of cultural curiosity. In the world we live in it’s a difficult film to track down (opening to a beyond-depressing number of 35 theaters across the country), suffering a dismally small distribution for a remarkably silly film that truly deserves much, much better.

I’ll admit that for the first ten minutes or so of The Mermaid I had a somewhat awkward time adjusting to its comedic vibes. A trip through a tourist trap “museum” of “exotic animals” (think of Uncle Stan’s bullshit gift shop on Gravity Falls), a post-auction business meeting involving a malfunctioning jetpack, and a billionaire playboy’s rap video-opulence pool party all are enjoyably silly in  a minor way, but also a little awkward from the outside looking in. It isn’t until the titular mermaid hijacks the film’s narrative that the weirdness opens up in a beautifully satisfying way. The mermaid of The Mermaid‘s moniker not only steals the show with her effortlessly charming, singing, dancing, flying, skateboarding ways, she also brings out the best (and worst) in all the characters that surround her. What at first promises to be a dull male lead in a billionaire playboy pollution junkie ends up being a gutbusting buffoon & a worthy player in the mermaid’s literal fish out of water romance once she brings him to life. The film might need to get kickstarted before it wins you over, but once it gets rolling there’s a relentlessly bizarre, cartoonish sense of humor to it that’s genuinely eager to please in an endearing way.

In The Mermaid‘s mythology, humans & merpeople are both evolutionary descendants of apes. Merpeople just happen to descend from apes who lived in water, having no use for their legs & forming fish tails in their stead. Merpeople traditionally choose to avoid humans due to their historical tendency to hunt & maim their seafaring counterparts, but their populations are disrupted & effectively destroyed by a grand “reclamation” project that makes it no longer possible for the merpeople to live in reclusive peace. Because the heartless business man responsible for the destructive reclamation project is known in the tabloids to be a notorious “pervert”, the merpeople decide to send one of their own to seduce & assassinate him in cold blood. Things inevitably go awry when the mermaid falls in love with the business monster who has ruthlessly maimed her people for profits & brings out a better person from within his damaged soul. The question is whether she’s willing to betray her people in the name of true love or whether the business prick will change his heart in time to reverse the damage he’s done to the mermaid’s natural environment.

At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Parts of the film feel like an over-earnest romcom. Parts could pass as a heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, complete with real life images of very real big business pollution atrocities. Parts are a straight-up spoof of the 60s super-spy genre. The whole thing is bizarrely subverted & repurposed through Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens that feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that range from Tim & Eric to Looney Tunes to ZAZ-style genre parody. Chow is becoming a master of his own aesthetic, a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how “evil” humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects.

It’s not at all surprising that The Mermaid is performing so well in foreign markets. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding. What is surprising is that its commercial success isn’t translating well to American theaters (not that Sony’s distribution gave it much of a chance). This isn’t a bleak foreign film about the ravages of war & the emotional turmoil of the economically downtrodden (at least not the whole film works that way). It’s a sublimely silly, largely physical, slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming romance & a unique visual palette (one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use) at its core. It should be a commercial hit. If you have the chance to catch it in its limited domestic run, it might be worth a gamble of a ticket price. You’re likely to find something about it that’s worthwhile, since Chow covers so much ground here & the film is, at heart, a shameless crowdpleaser.

Side note: Part of the reason it might’ve been difficult to get on The Mermaid‘s wavelength in its opening minutes is that the version I saw was dubbed into Cantonese & then subtitled in English. The dissonance of this out of sync presentation was at first a little disorienting, but that awkwardness did fade a great deal in time. I do believe the opening minutes are the film’s weakest stretch, but the awkward effect of that double translation should probably still be noted & further points to just how mishandle this film’s distribution truly was.

-Brandon Ledet