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June 29, 2014

Coffee Break

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Sabine Azema in Wild Grass (Alain Resnais - 2009)

Posted by peter at 07:48 AM

June 26, 2014

China Gate

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Samuel Fuller - 1957
Olive Films Region 1 DVD

"With Fuller, the distinction between the personal plot and its political context evaporates with the first leggy sprawl of Angie Dickinson." Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema

And with it, Sarris should have added, any sense that that this is a rigidly right wing view of the conflict in what was then French Indo-China. Yes, the commies are the bad guys. Fuller makes that point clear when a French priest tells mercenary Gene Barry about how he got his leg cut off. Dickinson's character is know as "Lucky Legs", and she is able to act as an apolitical traveler between the opposing forces in Indo-China. The priest is certainly unlucky, but his minor part in the narrative can be seen as a variation on the use of legs and feet by Fuller. What is often overlooked in discussing Pick-up on South Street is Richard Widmark's response to the feds, "Are you waving a flag at me?", and one of the main plot points of China Gate is racism in the United States, personified by Barry. Fuller's anti-Communism may have peaked here, but he never resisted the urge to point out what he thought was the biggest failing of the United States.

The introductory shot of Angie Dickinson's legs also is visually fitting for a film which is mostly about a group of free-lance soldiers hiking through the countryside in search of a hidden tunnel with a large cache of weapons supplied by Russia. One of the best scenes pivots on the close-up of a foot, that of Nat "King" Cole when he steps on a very long spike that pierces through is boot. Fuller cuts back to show Cole with a hand in his mouth, which he removes. The man is in incredible pain, and must remain silent in order not to get the attention of the nearby enemy. And perhaps it takes a vocalist to have the ability to express agony without making a sound. The scene is more effective that had we heard him scream. On the more comic side is a scene with Dickinson leading a group of Vietnamese guerrillas in "La Marseillaise", with its chorus of "Marchon, marchon", again reiterating the theme of using legs and feet. Barry's character of Brock is noted as having walked away from Dickinson, unable to accept that his racially mixed son looks more Chinese than American. The film ends with Brock walking away from a bombed out city with his newly accepted son. The shot that indicates the reunion frames the young boy in full, with Brock seen from the waist down.

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I had seen China Gate once before. It was in the summer of 1971, when awareness of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, who briefly appears in China Gate, was more significantly part of American life. I was taking classes at UC Berkeley, where there was an extraordinary series of films presented on campus. In the intervening years, I have since seen all of Fuller's theatrical features, plus read his autobiography which clears up some misunderstandings about his political leanings.

Someone only familiar with the title song might think that not only does China Gate take place in China, but in Hollywood's idea of China. And for all I know, that might have been what lyricist Harold Adamson had in mind when Cole sings of "bitter tea" (of General Yen?) and the "good earth". The title song is musically one of the film's strong points, with Victor Young's music mostly evoking the China part of China Gate. The casting followed the standards of the time with Angie Dickinson and Lee Van Cleef barely passing for Eurasians, with some smaller parts filled by Chinese and Chinese-American actors. Be that as it may, it was genius of Fuller to cast Cole, especially at a time when black actors were rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood films. China Gate may well fail under historical and cultural scrutiny, but Nat "King" Cole's presence, glistening with sweat from the jungle heat, transcends any scholarly concerns.

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Posted by peter at 07:44 AM

June 24, 2014

The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel

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Chúzi Xìzi Pǐzi
Guan Hu - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Unlike the films that followed Pulp Fiction with stories about idiosyncratic gangsters, Guan Hu seems to have taken Tarantino's Kill Bill films as inspiration, both visually and in story structure. Without any specific motivation, Guan's film veers from mock silent movie with intertitles to spaghetti western to animation, and that's just within the first five minutes. There is also the unmistakable influence of Sergio Leone, with both the title, and the basic premise of three people who may be working together, at least some of the time, but mostly are out for themselves. One could well evoke the cliche of what goes around, comes around, or something like that, with this film as a further example of the globalization of cinema.

The three title characters, plus the mute wife of the chef, are a very motley crew who have kidnapped two Japanese officers in Beijing of 1942. As such, the quartet tries to intimidate their captives and each other with manic displays of eccentricity. Taking place during a cholera epidemic, the captives may possibly also have a very valuable cure on their hands. While the cholera is decimating the civilian population of Beijing, it also is a threat to the Japanese army. The chef and his wife appear to be aiding the two officers. Simultaneously, the chef is at odds with the actor, a Chinese opera performer who is dressed for the stage, and the cowboy garbed scoundrel.

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Like Tarantino's films this one is also comprised of multiple flashbacks, looking at set pieces and more intimate scenes from different perspectives. The film takes place over several consecutive days, as part of an elaborate scheme of Chinese resistance to the Japanese army during one of the most dire periods during the war.

The clincher is at the end of the film when photos and titles provide the historical basis for the film. There are a series of old photographs of the characters, as well as an epilogue about the post war life of the main characters. As such, with daring of the real life events, I have to wonder if turning the story into a mostly manic comedy was such a good idea. There is an overflow of comic exaggeration for a story that would probably have more than enough drama and tension while sticking to the facts.

Taken on its own terms, The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel can be enjoyed for both the shameless mugging of the four stars, and for the elaborate visual setups. Most of the film takes place inside the chef's restaurant, a multi-storied building with secret doors and passageways. In addition to the previously mentioned uses of visual and narrative style, Guan also gooses up the red and blue, uses multiple screens several times, and has one very deliberate anachronistic dance performance. Is there a Mandarin word for tweaking?

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Posted by peter at 07:10 AM

June 22, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jean Rochefort and Claudia Cardinale in Artist and the Model (Fernando Trueba - 2012)

Posted by peter at 08:05 AM

June 19, 2014

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

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Nancy Buirski - 2014
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

So I had no idea who Tanaquil Le Clercq was. And it's not that the world of dance, much less ballet, is unknown to me outside of dance on film. I've been to a few concerts by some of the great choreographers. More personally, I did some video documentation for some local dance companies and performers, so I was interested in seeing what I could glean from how dance was documented in the days before digital media.

As it stands, the unknown documentarians always had the right idea. If you are going to visually document dance, you need to show the entire body. Even when dance was performed for television, as seen on several kinescope recordings, it's the entire body that we see. There are a few moments given over to partial views, the camera following the legs, and a couple more abstract images involving arms. Most of the dance performances are filmed in much the same way so that the viewer understands where dancers are on the stage, and in relationship to each other. Some might assume that the cuisinart style of editing the dance in many small pieces is more cinematic, but it destroys the sense of performance. What some might call old fashioned more truly honors the dance and the dancers.

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The story of Tanaquil Le Clercq involves a couple of tragic twists of fate. As a rising young star, Le Clercq performs on behalf of The March of Dimes as a young woman who beats polio. Almost ten years later, she puts of getting the vaccine prior to a tour of Europe, only to be struck down at the height of her career. If Le Clercq's life were a Hollywood movie, people would be questioning the imagination of the screenwriter.

Concurrent to the dramatic events is an abbreviated history of dance in New York City, mostly in the form of George Balanchine's company, The New York City Ballet, and the dancers he mentored, and in the case of Le Clercq, married. Much of the footage is devoted to Le Clercq with frequent dance partner Jacques d'Amboise. Additionally seen is Balanchine choreography performed by Suzanne Farrell and Allegra Kent. Le Clercq's long friendship with Jerome Robbins is part of this story.

What may surprise younger viewers is to know that there was a time when ballet was not considered too rarefied for mass audiences. Footage of Le Clercq is taken from national broadcasting, with Red Skelton's show, as well as a children's show hosted by a fixture of New York City television fixture, Sonny Fox. For those with a more casual interest in ballet, there is the question as to whether interest in Le Clercq is in spite of, rather than because of, the premature ending of her career as a dancer. A look at a novel about Le Clercq's life after polio gives many hints about what is not in this documentary. The footage of Le Clercq dancing does reveal a special gift, a difference that may be understood viscerally, with the quick movements and agility on a pair of undeniably long legs.

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Posted by peter at 08:28 AM

June 17, 2014

The Attorney

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Byeonhoin
Yang Woo-Seok - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A good part of The Attorney takes place in the shadows. People are only partially seen in dimly lit areas, or seen in silhouette. The darkness provides easy symbolism for a film that takes place during a dark era in modern South Korea, when the government was taken over by a military coup. While the film is a fictionalized account of a historical events, the film takes on a level of contemporary relevance with news of recent events in Thailand.

Yang's debut film struck a chord with Korean audiences, becoming one of the most successful films of 2013. At the same time, the film generated quite a bit of controversy depending on one's political bent, as well as discussion on those elements that have been fictionalized. It should be understood that while the main character was modeled after the man who would become the ninth president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, and what was known as the "Burim case", the film is presented as a work of fiction.

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The film primarily takes place in Busan, around 1978. Song Woo-seok is something of an outsider in the legal profession, a lawyer by dint of having passed the bar exam, scoffed at by most of his peers for having no more than a high school education. Due to changes in the law, Song takes up real estate work formerly done only by notaries, establishing a very lucrative practice, followed by becoming a wealthy tax attorney. A flashback shows the younger Song running out of a small restaurant at the time when he was short on cash, and uncertain about his future. This connection to the restaurant eventually leads to Song's involvement with a trial that changes his life.

Some aspects of the film could well have reverberations for the stateside audience regarding the use of torture to obtain information. Within a historical context, there is also the question regarding U.S. support of countries that may not have been democratic, but were loudly anti-communist. The trial of nine students accused of subversive activities is shown clearly to a vehicle for displaying government power and a means of keeping citizen dissent at bay.

For most viewers, I suspect that they will enjoy The Attorney simply as a kind of David and Goliath story, where one lone man takes on an entire country at the risk of himself, his profession and his family. Were it not for the historical roots of the story, this is almost the Korean equivalent to the kind of narratives one might find from the likes of John Grisham where a seemingly unqualified lawyer takes on the establishment. On those kinds of terms, The Attorney is effectively entertaining. For other viewers, there is more than enough to ponder.

Posted by peter at 07:17 AM

June 15, 2014

Coffee Break

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Barry Sullivan and Lee Aaker in Jeopardy (John Sturges - 1953)

Posted by peter at 08:49 AM

June 12, 2014

Pete Walker: A House and a Home

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House of Mortal Sin
Peter Walker - 1975

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Home Before Midnight
Pete Walker - 1979

both Redemption / Kino Lorber BD Region A

Is love impossible, or is it just that the characters in these two new home video releases are in impossible situations? That impossible love is revealed near the end of House of Mortal Sin, between two priests and the women in their lives. In Home Before Midnight, even when the twenty-eight years old songwriter known that the object of his affection is underage, he continues, even though he is aware of the legal consequences of his actions. In terms of subject matter, while some may have a sigh of relief knowing that the priests in House of Mortal Sin are heterosexual, Walker's film takes place in a community where the institutions of medicine and law are unknowing collaborators in the cover-up of the crimes of Father Meldrum. There is audacity in having a priest commit murder with a communion wafer.

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I don't consider House of Mortal Sin to be anti-Catholic or even anti-church, but rather an attack on the institutional conditions that allow for a priest to abuse others. There is the assumption that a priest would not resort to blackmail or murder. Father Meldrum's actions are attributed to his sexual frustration, due in part to his now bedridden mother who steered him to the priesthood, and of course, the Church's rules of celibacy. The most interesting scenes are the ones between Father Meldrum, his geriatric mother, and the housekeeper with one dark lens on her glasses. It is the tension between the three, plus the severe settings of stone walls, that provides a gothic feel to the proceedings, both visually and in narrative terms. That the film stars two "scream queens" from the Seventies, Susan Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham is enough to give House of Mortal Sin instant cult status.

Home before Midnight almost appears to be Pete Walker's most mainstream film, and might have been so had there not been the various soft core scenes. Even when the relationship between fourteen year old Ginny and musician Mike is presented as innocent to Ginny's parents, you have to wonder why the parents weren't curious enough to meet Mike much earlier. Alison Elliot, even with her baby face, still looks too old for passing as a teenager. One of Mike's pals and musical collaborators, is played by Chris Jagger, brother to the better known Sir Michael, giving the film a mild dash of rock and roll legitimacy. The music by Jigsaw is best described as soft rock, and as such, is no threat to the standing of the Little River Band.

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Richard Todd effortless adds gravitas and well-honed acting chops as the attorney who defends Mike, trying to salvage what he can so that his client is, if not innocent, at least less guilty. What works in the film's favor is that Ginny is not presented as a teen seductress, nor Mike as a lecher praying on underage girls.

Posted by peter at 08:39 AM

June 10, 2014

Omar

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Hany Abu-Assad - 2013
Adopt Films BD Region A

There's a scene I really liked in Omar. An Israeli agent is interviewing the imprisoned Palestinian Omar, trying to convince him to provide information in exchange for freedom. The agent is twice interrupted by phone, first by his wife, then by his mother. The agent has to remind both women that he can't do anything about their respective problems because he is in the West Bank. The guy is exasperated by both women who are seemingly oblivious to his work. Maybe the scene worked for me because it was a moment of humor in a generally humorless film.

Stories involving the conflicts between personal loyalties and political loyalties can be engrossing, much to the point where one is not sure which screen character should be awarded the most sympathy. Omar, in contrast, largely left me cold. And that might be because the political aspect of the film reduced the conflict to one of "us versus them", the Israeli oppressors and the Palestinian oppressed. In contrast, the relationship between the three friends who are self-described freedom fighters is of more interest because of the various shifts between the three men.

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The trio set up the shooting of an Israeli soldier. During a raid, Omar is caught. The Israelis seem especially interested in capturing Tarek. Omar is freed on the condition that he provides information leading to the capture of Tarek. Omar is suspected of being a collaborator, or a double agent. Omar tries to protect the identity of Amjad, his rival for Tarek's sister, and the actual shooter. What is of interest is the continual shift between perception and reality. That shift involves all of the major characters, which in turn precipitates the film's tragic conclusion.

I also have to wonder where anyone got the idea of comparing Omar's relationship with Nadia to that of Romeo and Juliet. These are not the children of two families with some kind of ongoing dispute. The reason why their relationship is kept secret has more to do with specific cultural practices, as well as the more practical concerns when one lives in the West Bank and the other in a section of the Palestinian Territories. Even when everyone is in western style clothing, Omar still would need the traditional approval from Nadia's family, and especially Tarek, to marry Nadia.

What is also of interest to me is to see the difference between how a Palestinian filmmaker presents Palestinian life and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in comparison to those films by Israeli filmmakers who have made an effort to be sympathetic to Palestinians, if not to some of the political objectives.

Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

June 08, 2014

Coffee Break

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Rosalind Cash and Stacy Keach in The New Centurians (Richard Fleischer - 1972)

Posted by peter at 08:53 AM

June 06, 2014

Death Bed: The Bed that Eats

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George Barry - 1977
Cult Epics BD Region 0

It is so easy to get snarky about an independently made, extremely low budget horror movie with a ridiculous premise. As one who has served on a couple of less than professional film crews, I know that making a movie isn't as easy at it looks, and often is tedious work. For that reason, I'm willing to give a small cheer for George Barry for making his one and only feature film.

This is not the kind of film that would have been improved significantly by a bigger budget, better special effects, or more professional actors, although it should be noted that Rusty Russ went on to a still active career as William Russ. But rather than point out some of the films shortcomings, which filmmaker George Barry is willing to do on the commentary track, it should be noted that most of the film was made in 1972, by someone just twenty-three years old at the time, with a budget of only $10,000, in 16mm. Barry might have benefitted from making some shorts prior to producing a feature length film, as the similarly aged Michael Reeves and Stephen Weeks had done before making their debut features, at a time when making a horror movie was the most viable genre for kickstarting a career.

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This huge, demonically possessed bed has telekinetic powers as well, helpfully opening the doors for potential victims, as well as using the sheets as arms to drag anyone trying to escape. Mostly it seem to be a disguise for a very large stomach of yellow digestive fluids with an appetite for various food, drink, people and even a stray suitcase. There is one kind of funny image of a bottle of Pepto-Bismol floating around. Barry does have a sense of humor about the premise, best shown in some of the vignettes of the bed's past victims.

What may be more interesting is how this film, which never received any kind of release after its completion in 1977, somehow made the jump to a bootleg video that acquired a devoted cult following. Barry took so long to finish the film due to the inconsistencies of self-financing the post production. There are some gaps which neither Barry nor film scholar Stephen Thrower explain. Somehow, Death Bed acquired a life of its own among horror film aficionados, more widely seen initially on VHS tapes made by, shall we say, independent entrepreneurs. I seriously hope George Barry will at least break even on this first official Blu-ray release. In addition to the commentary track by Barry and Thrower, there are two introductions, one by Barry from 2003, and a more recent intro by Thrower made specifically for this release. A conversation between Barry and Thrower, filmed in a Detroit area restaurant sheds more light on the origins of Thrower's book, Nightmare USA, about independent horror movies produced in the Seventies and early Eighties.

Posted by peter at 07:22 AM

June 04, 2014

Office Love: Behind Closed Doors

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Ofisu rab:: Mahiru no kinryoku
Yasuro Uegaki - 1985
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

A couple of shots in the beginning of Office Love might indicate that Yasuro Uegaki might have done well had he been making more mainstream films rather than a career in Roman Porno. The film introduces the main character, Reiko, with traveling shots from behind, following her legs and the upper part of her dress, office wear, which changes to a shot of her legs coming out of her car while in evening wear. It's not in the class of Henry King's traveling shot following the famed legs of Betty Grable in A Yank in the R.A.F., nor is it as sexy, but still it is an interesting visual choice, especially as the later Roman Porno films from Nikkatsu had a tendency to be more formulaic.

Reiko sits alone in a restaurant. A man on a date notices Reiko, and sits down to talk to her. The camera moves around so that we see Reiko and the man conversing at the table while in the background, the man's date observes the two, who it is revealed knew each other in the past. Uegaki was certainly working with a limited budget, but even if finances necessitated economic story telling, there is an understanding here of how to tell a story making the most of a single shot.

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Reiko is a secretary for a large travel agency, with a special apartment used for entertaining various men, The sex that bookends the film could well have been provocative for the original audience. Reiko beds a gaijin, something which might have caused unease among some socially conservative viewers, the rough equivalent being the scenes from blaxploitation movies where Jim Brown or Fred Williamson is shown in bed with a pretty blonde actress. The film ends with a threesome, Reiko with two men at once, the trio becoming a tangle of sweaty flesh, ending with Reiko going to bed alone, a smile on her face.

There really isn't that much to the story. Reiko is a single mother. The former lover she encounters in the restaurant is the father. Reiko now works for her former lover's father. What makes the narrative of interest is that Reiko deliberately goes against traditional Japanese culture, choosing to remain unattached, and clear eyed about herself, turning down the men who offer marriage.

I usually don't write much about film scores, but the music here is at times lush and romantic, and far better than what one might expect in this kind of film. This was in fact the debut score for Masahiro Kawasaki who went on to provide music for more mainstream films, getting a couple of nominations from the Japanese Academy. One of those nominations is for a film that received a U.S. release, Rampo. Sometimes the talent worth noticing, even in a soft core sex film, is not in front of the camera.

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Posted by peter at 07:31 AM

June 02, 2014

Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle

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Onna Taiiku Kyoshi: Tonde hiraite
Koyu Ohara - 1981
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

In comparison to previous Nikkatsu releases by Koyu Ohara, especially those with Junko Asahina, this is a lighter film, both in tone and eroticism. Not so much like the earlier Roman Porno films, but there is a vague attempt at social relevancy with the women displaying some self-determination regarding there sex partners, the wearing of condoms, how women are used as sales and marketing tools, and even a gay male sex scene.

Of course the big advantage to making a movie about women in leotards is that you can shoot the women in various positions that are sexually suggestive without breaking any rules. Sure, there are some bare breasts and backsides, and the usual simulated couplings. The story as such is about several young women who are members of a cosmetics company's gymnastic team. Shortly before a competition, the team is told they are now to do something called rhythmic gymnastics. Their new coach, was the former high school coach to one of the young women, Kei. The two had a falling out following an unsuccessful showing. Kei needs to have sex the night before in order to be her best in competition, while coach Aoki seems to be impotent. The team slut, Ichigo, fails at seducing Aoki, leading to rumors that he might be gay.

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The rumors result in the kind of scene that rarely appears in a film aimed presumably to an audience of straight salarymen. Aoki is attacked by another man in some kind of costume made up of leather straps. It's not entirely clear what the two are doing, and Aoki doesn't do much to fight off this unexpected lover, seeming to surrender under the other man's weight. Aoki is determined to prove himself "normal", finally getting cured by Kei oral ministrations.

Junko Asahina was a graduate of Takarazuka Academy and Musical Theater, and this was put to good use on the gym floor with her dance performances. The film ends with Asahina nude, performing with a bright red streamer. The soundtrack includes some Japanese pop songs that I can only assume are representative of that disco tinged era (and flashbacks of Pink Lady and Jeff). Further research shows that Koyu Ohara probably chose the songs, and that just three years after making this film, he concentrated on making music videos, with one final feature shot in Hong Kong, China Scandal: Exotic Dance. Chroniclers of Japan's pink cinema have already pointed out Ohara's auteurist credentials with recurring themes. While Ohara praised visual style is not significantly shown here, he does make an interesting choice of filming a scene of fellatio in silhouette.

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Posted by peter at 07:40 AM

June 01, 2014

Coffee Break

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"Henning" and Peggy Steffans in All the Sins of Sodom (Joe Sarno - 1968)

Posted by peter at 10:14 AM