Book Review: Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen

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Stephen Totterdell takes a look at  Ruth Barton’s latest book, Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen.

 

“Had Rex lost his grip on the little grammar and syntax he had learned? What was a ‘broad’? And a ‘cinch’? Did he mean ‘clinch’?”

The story of Rex Ingram could be an emigration story. Born in Rathmines, Ingram fled to the U.S. to work first as a manual laborer, before enrolling in Yale and then becoming, uh, a Hollywood director. Unlike many other Irish artists in America, however, Ingram never played stage-Irish. Instead of a hard-living, hard-drinking, sweater-wearing Irishman, Barton describes an aesthete much more at home in the world of movies than in the bar. Ahead of his time, Ingram traveled in LGBT circles and had a deep interest in sex. Barton speaks of his rumoured bisexuality, but it remains unconfirmed. Certainly in his work one can see undertones of what was probably an actively bisexual life, and his work will be of interest to scholars of Queer Theory.

Ruth Barton is best known as one of the core figures in Film Studies in Ireland. Instead of an academic analysis, however, this book focuses on telling the compelling narrative of Ingram’s life. It could be argued that the book represents the inroads academics have been making for the last few years into public discourse. The notoriously squeezed field of academia has led a number of scholars to pursue what is known as ‘AltAc’, or Alternative Academia. Writers such as Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed, or Slavoj Žižek are two high profile examples. These academics hope to bring theory and research to mainstream audiences, a practice which reminds one of the golden years of public intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin or Jean-Paul Sartre.

With this Rex Ingram biography, Ruth Barton brings an under-represented director to the surface. Well written and – importantly – slim, the book requires little effort to read. It is full of great details about the director. One of the great anecdotes about Rex Ingram is that he was born a Hitchcock, but changed his name in order to break into Hollywood. In contrast with his aesthetic interests, “One of Rex’s peculiarities was his liking to dress like a bum,” and his tyrannical on-set behaviour is in contrast to his charming social persona. Barton describes an eccentric and intriguing man who refuses to be categorised. Perhaps this is why we remember him less than some of the other figures of the period – just what is the Ingram brand?

Certainly that is not something that will be said of Barton. A tireless scholar of Irish cinema, she continues to enrich the field both inside academia and out of it. This biography is insightful, exciting, and – best of all – fun.

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Interview: Alina Bronsky, writer of ‘Scherbenpark’ (Broken Glass Park)

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Scherbenpark (Broken Glass Park) recently screened at the IFI Kinofest. Based on Alina Bronsky’s best-selling novel of the same title, Scherbenpark tells the tale of seventeen-year-old Russian immigrant Sascha who lives in a rough Stuttgart neighbourhood where her family has some notoriety, with her stepfather imprisoned for the brutal murder of her mother. When Sascha sees a sympathetic newspaper interview with the convict, she angrily confronts the editor, Volker, whose guilt leads him to invite Sascha into his home, where he lives with son Felix. In this environment, the harsh and abrasive young woman slowly begins to mature into someone more open and accepting of the world’s flaws.

Stephen Totterdell met up with novelist Alina to discuss her work.

 

Sascha appears to reject the traditional “social drama” narrative at home in favour of more personal and humorous adventures. Was this a conscious choice to move away from “struggle” narratives that are frequently associated with these communities?

I wanted to tell a story that was dramatic and entertaining at the same time. Sascha still has a lot to struggle with, but I wanted her life to have more colours than just the grey and black of poverty and loss. I did not plan her to appear as on all-round victim either: She is just as powerful and funny as life can be. 

 

Do you think there have been more “immigrant” literatures and films coming through in the last few years? If so, why?

I guess there are more of us now and we speak with different voices. The next step would be not to talk about “immigrant” literature anymore, because there are too many very different ways of storytelling to be united in this genre.

 

What are your thoughts on the adaptation process? Can you think of adaptations that worked particularly well, or didn’t? Do you have a favourite adaptation?

Here are two very different examples: Hunger Games and A Fleeing Horse. I love both.

 

The prose in Scherbenpark is quite cinematic. Did cinema influence your writing at all? Furthermore, do you think a lot of writers today are influenced by cinema as much as literature?

I suppose writers watch films as much as other people. You can not pretend you are not influenced by the  media around you. However, for me it is not a conscious process.

 

Is the role the media play in personal tragedy an important theme for you?

You mean the tragedy in Scherbenpark? Sure. The media are part of it. They transfer the personal tragedy into a public one, so Sascha has the experience of her very own story not belonging to her anymore.

 

How involved were you with the casting process? Do you feel that the actors had an effect on the behaviour or mannerisms of the characters? I’d imagine this can be one of the biggest leaps when translating a story from page to screen.

I was not involved at all, I wanted to be surprised. So I was. Of course, the actors have a huge effect – so we all were lucky to enjoy such a great cast.

 

What role or position do you see for German cinema in the international film industry? Is it an insular cinema in any way, or does it provide a specific function around the world?

Honestly, I don’t know. Never thought much about it.

 

What role do literature and film play for people of immigrant background in Germany?

You cannot generalize. Immigrant background can be very different. They have in common that younger people prefer to watch rather than to read. Some immigrant communities stick to their languages which makes it harder to reach out to them – the choice of the TV channel can influence you a lot, and if you watch different films and read different books you sort of feel  like you come from different planets.

 

Do you think cinema and literature are addressing fundamentally different audiences? What do you think is unique about each one, and what do you think can be achieved more effectively by one over the other?

I would like to hope that most of the people enjoy both cinema and literature. I would not like to compare them.  I cannot even say that books require more patience because it is not true. They just force the mind to a little more activity.

 

Were there any additions to the film that you were particularly pleased with?

I am fine with all the changes, which are necessary when you are adapting a book. If there had been more I would not have minded either.  I like it when someone takes my idea and transfers it into something new.

 

Which of your other books do you think would be suited to cinematic adaptation, and why?

I do not see any difference between Scherbenpark and my other books in that point. However, I’ve been told it’s much more difficult when your book has a great number of characters or a longer timeline of three generations or a protagonist whose face has to be hidden until the end. I must confess these are the things I never worried much about while writing.

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If I Stay

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DIR: R.J. Cutler • WRI: Shauna Cross • PRO: Denise Di Novi, Alison Greenspan • ED: Keith Henderson • DOP: John de Borman   DES: Brent Thomas   MUS: Heitor Pereira • Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Stacy keach, Liana Liberato

If I Stay reminds one of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in that it chooses to use a framing device that feels superfluous to the narrative. Its hospital-based scenes (the lens through which we view the central plot) underscore a rather lively and touching narrative, but the film could have stood alone on its central plot. While The Fault In Our Stars examined youth and illness with plenty of attention given to the tiny nuances of the experience, If I Stay prefers instead to offer its viewers gratuitous crying scenes in place of meaningful interaction. It is these post-death, emotion-laden scenes that feel manipulatively designed to provoke adolescent passion. There is an insincerity in these moments that cannot be overlooked. The Fault In Our Stars felt like it cared about its characters. If I Stay cares about them only enough to get a rise out of its audience.

Based on a young adult novel novel by Gayle Forman, the film follows Mia, the victim of a car accident, as she replays memories from her life and relationships. These memories are full of good dialogue and distinctive characters, recalling the likes of Juno. Like a novel written in the vernacular, the viewer must overcome initial resistance to the stylistics of both the dialogue and the cinematography and, when that is achieved, these elements become irresistable. Mia’s parents are memorable characters, and the tension between generations is nicely capsulated in Mia’s desire to play cello while her father remains an old-school punk rocker.

The film is visually striking, and offers claustrophobic spaces in which Mia plays out her relationships. Rather than appearing dreamlike, these flashback sequences are the most vivid and colourful of the film. It is almost a shame that the car accident plot exists at all, because during these flashbacks we witness dialogue so sharp and funny that the hospital scenes come across as variably dull and manipulative. This framing failure really cuts away at the heart of the film which, otherwise, might have been a pleasant film about music, relationships, and the generation gap.

Its narrative is fresh enough that the viewer can’t easily settle into predicting what will happen. There are enough original turns of phrase and new variations on interactions to make If I Stay an invigorating watch – more than your average blockbuster. That it comes from a young adult novel in a time when young adult novels are pushing the boat out further than perhaps any other form of literature is relevant, although If I Stay is one of the tamer books around. A lot of viewers misunderstood The Fault In Our Stars – thinking it to be a kind of cry-fest rather than a well-researched portrayal of illness as an identity – but If I Stay offers the kind of empty experience that was claimed for Fault.

So it’s enjoyable, fresh in many ways, but not particularly nuanced or interesting. Worth a watch.

Stephen Totterdell

12A (See IFCO for details)

84 minutes

If I Stay is released 29th August

If I Stay –  Official Website

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Wakolda

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DIR/WRI: Lucía Puenzo  • PRO: Fernando Abadi  •  DOP: Nicolás Puenzo • ED: Hugo Primero • MUS: Andrés Goldstein  CAST: Àlex Brendemühl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti

A few things come together in Wakolda. First, there is the striking notion that South American cinema could centre on the narratives of its rather capacious German population. In German cinema, the Turkish-German population are presently emerging from the sidelines to assert their own cinematic narrative. Here, we have the Germans at the centre of an Argentine narrative. It might come to pass that a larger German-Argentine cinema will develop, much in the same way as Turkish-German or, for example, Italian-American. For now, though, we focus on the genesis of the world’s interest in German-Argentine narratives: the history of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America.

It should be noted that Germans had a history of emigrating to Argentina and Brazil before the war, but, as the cloud of the Holocaust hovers over every German cinematic narrative, this must be the jumping off point for all artistic discussion. This film, at least, is a refreshing take on the subject. Its expansive Argentine landscapes contrast wildly with the contained and measured German doctor Mengele. When his host family’s daughter runs into physical “problems” (she is “too short”), Mengele convinces the family to allow him to experiment on her in order to fix her height.

There has been a lot of talk about the banality of evil in recent cinema, with Austria’s Michael a highlight. But whereas Michael incisively penetrated its villain’s everyday life, demonstrating just how normal he was, this film offers merely a surface glimpse into the proceedings. All of the characters remain largely enigmatic. This is down to a mix of both flimsy characterisation – in the case of the parents of the girl – and a conscious choice to merely observe – in the case of Mengele. The film makes frequent reference to Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer whose trial was covered by Hannah Arendt and whose triviality was responsible for Arendt’s theory of “the banality of evil”.

However, it must be noted that Mengele seems motivated less by a general sense of evil-doing and more by scientific curiosity and misguided attempts to advance science. One of the spookier elements of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy is when he explains that Nazi doctors were capable of such horrific acts because they worked through a series of ethical checks; for example, they could justify experimenting on Jewish people because the Jewish people were classified as less than human; and so the doctors could act as if they were experimenting on animals. This meant that they did not have to directly mentally engage with the true nature of their actions. They did not have to think the sentence “I am experimenting on a person.” There are frequent references in Wakolda to dolls, animals, other inhuman bodies. So rather than a walking monster, we have a hugely misguided man. It is similar in ways to the film Close to Evil, which screened at the Galway Film Fleadh this year, in which one of the last remaining SS officers refuses to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened. If she acknowledged it, her internal defence systems would shut down. The cognitive dissonance would be too much.

It is interesting, too, that the film comes along in 2014; at a time when we are obsessed with creating the perfectly optimised self. Not to stretch it too far, but the desire to create a kind of superhuman is definitely something that we can all understand. The quantified self is here. It is that leap from where we are now to more profoundly disturbing experimentation that causes horror. But it is worth trying to understand all of these issues rather than simply reacting in abject horror. There have been enough  films about the war that simply say “Evil!” This film does that to an extent, but it is a little more contemplative about our motivations and actions as people. Very interesting and worthwhile.

Stephen Totterdell

93 mins

Wakolda is released on 8th August 2014

Wakolda – Official Website

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Living in a Coded Land – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell deciphers Living in a Coded Land, Pat Collins’ film essay that makes unexpected links between events and locations, history and contemporary life. The film screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

This film tries too hard. It’s extremely self-indulgent.

And yet, it offers sound analysis of Irish society in a way that most films don’t. It makes no concessions to its audience, and can come across as preachy; but if its viewers can stick with it they will find value. It excavates – slowly – some of the ideology at the heart of modern Ireland. It offers a vocabulary for liberation in a thoughtful manner, rather than a shouty manner.

There has been much talk about the reasons for Irish artist’s disinterest in critiquing Irish society during the financial crisis. Most writers and filmmakers seem content to ignore what has been happening, and write about tea instead; or the power of sticking together or whatever. A few, such as the poet Dave Lordan or the novelist Julian Gough, do their best to shoot from the sidelines. It is still rare, though, and that makes this film a welcome manifestation of concern.

The code of the title is the set of behaviours, mannerisms, social rules that one learns to manipulate in order to rise to the top. Those who achieve it aren’t necessarily the best or the brightest; they just know the right things to say in order to slip through. More often that not, this is due to an accident of birth; they were born into a “good” family or they went to a certain school. They learn to latch onto the part of society that rises to the top. Whereas in the past it might have been the world of oil (or milkshakes), today it is finance

What the film achieves is that it makes explicit the mechanisms at work, so that laymen can understand them. It demystifies the processes at work, which will hopefully help the population to feel more confident in criticising those processes. It is easy for those in these high status positions to accuse the “lower” classes of being overly passionate or not knowing the specifics of a situation, but, as with the many violations of the last few years, we can see that these “higher” classes don’t really know the specifics either. It’s a power system, and this film attempts to teach people to navigate it in order that they can begin to dismantle it.

That is an ambitious and admirable project. That Collins indulges in too much arthouse imagery is forgiveable, but I hope that he improves on this front in the future. This is one of the few contemporary Irish artworks that tries to say something important.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

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Close to Evil: Extended Cut – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell takes a look at the extended cut of Gerry Gregg’s award-winning documentary, Close to Evil, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Cognitive Dissonance. Is there any psychological process that has caused more trouble in the world? But the cognitive dissonance on display in Close to Evil allows us insight into how atrocities can occur, and how they occur again. Tomi, a Bergen-Belsen survivor who arrived in Dublin in the late 1950s, decides to seek out one of the last remaining SS officers from the camp. He doesn’t want to confront or accuse. Rather he wants the SS officer to show remorse, and to shake her hand in the spirit of reconciliation. Hilde Lisiewicz served as an officer in Bergen-Belsen while in her early 20s, and went on to put it behind her and live a normal life.

It’s the smile that does it. The “chit-chat”, as one interviewee puts it. We expect a former Nazi to show remorse, or to have become embittered, or to live a punishing life. But Hilde smiles, says she doesn’t remember much, she liked the uniforms, would you like a sandwich? It’s the banality of evil, and is something German cinema has dealt with repeatedly. The recent Austrian film Michael analysed it: that film tells of an unassuming office worker who returns home in the evening to a child he has locked in his basement. It’s the stories about Hilter being a vegetarian. We expect a monster. When these people turn out to be human it causes what Julia Kristeva calls ‘abjection’. We see a part of our own identity become vulnerable; the border between us and these monstrous figures is blurred, and we react with disgust.

That Hilde can’t acknowledge her own history of atrocity speaks to a wider human condition. What would happen if she had acknowledged it sooner, or at all? Is it possible to acknowledge being a part of such a thing without finding some excuse, some reason that you weren’t really a part of it? Such a realisation would surely end in suicide. Hilde seems so assured of her innocence that she brought her children to visit Bergen-Belsen, telling them that she worked as a chef in the camp. But why did she lie about her job there?

It’s the kind of mentality that reminds us never to take the world for granted, that our powers for self-justification are endless. Look at those arguing for unjust wars abroad, look at the situation with Israel and Palestine. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle comes into it. In a way, people find comfort in putting the Holocaust in the past; in saying there, that’s where the evil is. In looking at the horrific footage available. It existed, and it was terrible, but it was in the past where it can’t get us. Like Kristeva’s abjection, an acknowledgment that this kind of atrocity could still happen; that does still happen; that we could all be in some way complicit in something or other, would threaten our sense of identity too much. So we put it in the past, and we wonder how the Germans of the 1940s could have let such things happen.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

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Begin Again: Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell checks out Irish director John Carney‘s Begin Again, which opened this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Take Once, set it in NYC, and turn the emotions up as far as they’ll go – you’ve got an approximation of Begin Again. Despite this, John Carney’s latest film works with one of the sharpest screenplays of the last few years. Add to that a hugely endearing Mark Ruffalo (who I predict will soon get the Bryan Cranston treatment), as well as Ray Romano, and there’s something refreshing about this film. In the ’70s, Woody Allen refused directorial preciousness with Annie Hall – inventing the subtitles scene, the animated scene, the layered flashbacks; and anything to keep the film fresh and engaging. It looks like John Carney has taken a similar approach, playfully subverting both Hollywoood’s and the audience’s expectations. This feels like it comes out of a genuine anxiety of “selling out”, and indeed the film’s themes mirror this anxiety.

Mark Ruffalo plays a down-and-out family man and former indie record label owner, whose personal issues have cost him everything. When he stumbles across Keira Knightley’s poorly received open mic performance in New York, his contrarian nature tells him that she could be – with a little work – an important artist. While her former partner and ex-boyfriend becomes a music legend, her passion for the craft at the expense of success sees her living hand-to-mouth.

Carney introduces a number of familiar cinematic elements, only to undercut these moments with a dexterity subtler than anything stock postmodernism could achieve. When James Corden invites Keira Knightley to perform at a gig, she is reluctant. This reluctancy is followed by an arc-friendly acquiescence. Then, rather than provoking the awe we expect, she bombs. This development is subverted again by a moment I won’t spoil. The film is full of this playfulness, and refusal to be precious about its subject matter.

Although Carney clearly wrestles with the move from Irish film to Hollywood, he manages to marry Hollywood’s sentimentalism with a low-key sense of humour that sounds a note akin to a few other young U.S. directors. Along with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling, Carney is determined not to follow the beaten path. The vogue today is for artists to reject the establishment in order to carve out their own unique careers, and the rise of Kickstarter films along with indie publishers and Twitter successes fits nicely with this film. That its message can be tied to a very American message (Emerson’s ideas on self-reliance and ignoring the crowd aren’t exactly new) reveals it to be less revolutionary than it wants to be, but that it does so within a stringently anti-risk industry and that Ruffalo and Knightley’s journeys clearly mirror Carney’s give this philosophy a visceral affirmation.

Structurally the film operates on a strange level. The A plot and the B plot don’t overlap in the way that one expects. It’s as if we are watching two different films spliced together.

Both Knightley and Ruffalo have been on the path previously tread by Matthew McConnaughey, albeit at slower speeds. That so many artists eventually come to reject easy success in order to pursue what they’re passionate about is a nice trend in American cinema right now. There should be films that reflect this spirit. This film brings hope – a qualified hope – for the future of American cinema. It’s not great. But it is interesting.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwLuDO_Cxfc&feature=kp

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Love Eternal

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DIR/WRI: Brendan Muldowney  PRO: Conor Barry, Manami Fukawa DOP: Tom Comerford  ED: Mairead McIvor   DES: Owen Power  MUS: Bart Westerlaken CAST: Robert de Hoog, Naomi Clarke, Tina Shaw, Cathy Malone

Asperger Syndrome is a fun plot device. From Hannibal‘s forensic genius Will Graham to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s computer genius Lisbeth Salander, it’s become shorthand for cinema’s “troubled genius” characters. High IQ mixed with asocial personalities make for exciting drama. Rarely, though, is the Syndrome explored outside of high octane scenarios. Rarely do we see a portrayal of just a lonely young person who struggles to connect with others.

So here we are. Love Eternal’s Ian Harding is on the spectrum. Only it’s not stated. Perhaps it’s not even intentional. The only explicit reference is a shell Ian picks up from the beach; a shell which is distinctly reminiscent of the Fibonacci numbers – a design frequently referenced with regard to autism. Ian is obsessed with death, and has been ever since witnessing his father’s at the age of six. This has produced in him an odd intimacy with corpses, and one gets the impression that he is a sort of merchant of death. Nobody gets closer to the dead than Ian. It’s a story of a lonely man who seeks out others with whom to share a suicide. If he’s alone in life, he reasons, he might as well enjoy a bit of company before his death.

Adapted from Kei Oishi’s novel In Love With the Dead, Brendan Muldowney’s film is another in a line of Irish films to reject the Priest+Field narrative ordinarily so prevalent in Irish cinema. The Scandi-Noir aesthetic recalls Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did and, although this film has lower production values (which are in some places obvious), its depth and intensity of focus make it a flawed but energetic effort. There are many things I could criticise in this film, but its ingenuity and freshness is something that must be applauded.

Ian spends his youth browsing suicide websites, and I imagine this is common practice for real world teenagers. Its deftness at dealing with mental health issues marks it out from any sensationalist “message films”. Away from the hustle and partying of the Skins teenagers, here’s a character people on the spectrum can relate to. Ian sits by himself and chats to his online friends for “ten years”. When he begins searching for a partner in suicide, he begins to develop real world relationships.

I had one reservation about the narrative. The moments during which Ian comes alive are always the moments when he is dancing, or singing, or performing a Neurotypical (non-Aspergic) activity. This is when he is happy. But this narrative device perpetuates the idea that Ian is, as he states, defective, and that in order to be happy he has to become more Neurotypical; more normal. Anyone with Asperger’s will tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. This process is called “mainstreaming”. It’s the idea that rather than accept difference we must strain it out and transform people like Ian into “normal” people in order for them to be happy. I think all this does is help “normal” people to become more comfortable with those who are different, rather than affecting those with Asperger’s in any positive way.

It’s nice to see a low-budget film that doesn’t make a show of its low-budget. There’s an element in Irish cinema that wants to turn everything into Republic of Telly, so it’s good to see some genuine artistic endeavour here. Although its production values can ocasionally be distracting, the story plays out with such earnestness that one forgives it its flaws. The fact that it was adapted from a Japanese novel also brings hope, and perhaps coincides with Anglophonic consumers’ growing taste for translated fiction.

This is one of those films that isn’t for everybody. But for those who like the sound of what I’ve described above, it’s really worth watching. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert: I’m tired of films that are for everybody, which really means they’re for nobody. This film is for me, and for me it works very well indeed.

Stephen Totterdell

18 (See IFCO for details)
97 mins

Love Eternal is released on 4th July 2014

Love Eternal – Official Website

 

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