KPK on the CINEMA: (MARCH 2017)

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> Gird your loins! This is a big one… (All films are rated on a 5 star basis. Bear in mind that films must be over a decade old to get 5 stars.)

> This month I review the following 36 films:

MOONLIGHT  (2016) ****+

SNOWDEN  (2016) ***+

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS  (2016) ***

THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER  (1965) *****

JUPITER ASCENDING  (2015) **

THE FITS  (2015) ****

THE LONGEST YARD  (1974) ***+

THE HUNTING GROUND  (2015) ****

GRANDMA  (2015) ***+

ANT MAN  (2015) ***

MORITURI  (1965) ****

SAUSAGE PARTY  (2016) **+

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT  (2014) ***+

IXCANUL (“Volcano”)  (2015) ****+

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT  (2016) ****

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON  (2014) ****

GIRLFRIEND’S DAY  (2017) ***+

DHEEPAN  (2016) ****

FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK  (2016) ***

MOANA WITH SOUND  (1926) *****

THE PROPAGANDA GAME  (2015) ***

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE  (2012) ****+

CAFÉ SOCIETY  (2016) ****+

DRESSED TO KILL  (1941) ***

THE TRIBE  (2014) ***

UNDER THE SHADOW  (2016) ***+

MOANA  (2016) ****+

PURPLE RAIN  (1984) ***+

NEVADA SMITH  (1966) ****

VICTORIA  (2015) ****

BURN!  (1969) ***

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK  (1952) ***+

ARRIVAL  (2016) ****

UNDER THE SUN  (2015) ****

EXTRAORDINARY TALES  (2015) ***+

A SOUND OF THUNDER  (2005) ***

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MOONLIGHT  (2016) ****+

Transcendent filmmaking of the highest order. How ironic that for a few awkward minutes, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences got it dead-wrong when they appeared to choose vapid emptiness over great cinema. LA LA LAND winning Best Picture seemed like a bad dream. As it turned out to be. MOONLIGHT is the rightful, if undercut winner. It’s a masterful coming-of-age story told in three parts, by three equally compelling actors, playing the same person at three different stages in his life. All three actors are exceptional and absolutely believable as the same person: Alex R. Hibbert plays him as a horrifically bullied child known as “Little”, Ashton Sanders plays him as a brooding teen, then called by his given name “Chiron”, and Trevante Rhodes completes the picture as the young adult Chiron, now nicknamed “Black” by his childhood pal Kevin. Little is hounded for being different, taunted mercilessly for being perceived to be gay. All kids who get branded with the label ‘different’ are tormented in American schoolyards by homophobic bullies who pronounce them “fag”. It doesn’t really matter if you are gay or not. (As a lifelong member in the fraternity of the different, it happened to me- a lot.) Pathetically, it’s the worst thing they can think to call you, so that’s the term they use. In Little’s case, this abuse is made all the worse because his is gay- though appropriately, his sexual identity has yet to express itself. This gives the struggling boy the explicit message that it is not okay for him to be the person he is, and sets up a cycle of self-loathing. His mom is a crack addicted mess of a woman, beautifully played by Naomi Harris- one hell of an actress who gives one hell of a performance here. Little will have to raise himself. Mahershala Ali, (familiar as the sly, calculating Remy on TV’s House of Cards), gives a nuanced and deservedly Oscar-winning performance as Juan, deconstructing the stereotypes that come to mind when we think “drug dealer”. The way he has compartmentalized what he does for a living from his private life indicates denial, not amorality. When Juan is presented with the consequences of selling hard drugs that damage human lives, it’s very devastating for him, and Mr. Ali really makes us feel his remorse. The final sequence is among the most heartbreaking and beautiful gay themed scenes I’ve ever seen, and packs one powerful punch. It is all capped by a brief and utterly transcendent peek back at the child that became Black, in a rare moment of unlimited possibility, when the future had yet to be written. Writer/director Barry Jenkins has said he had this brilliant screenplay on the page ten years ago, but apparently the world was not ready for MOONLIGHT in 2006. Thank goodness it was ready in 2016, because MOONLIGHT is just about as good as films get.

SNOWDEN  (2016) ***+

This very good Oliver Stone film barely recorded a blip on the public radar. Critics were not warm and the film did not put butts in seats. But it is fascinating and compelling material, and the great lefty cinema agitator feels a good fit for the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden- a hero to some for exposing extra-legal citizen surveillance, and a villain to others for compromising national security. It seems pretty clear where Mr. Stone’s sympathies lie. He is a proponent of open and transparent government, which, let’s face it, is not what we have. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden, and it isn’t until you get a glimpse of the read deal at the end, that you realize what an extraordinary job he did inhabiting the well-known public figure without aping him. This actor has gotten awfully good since his early TV success. Filling out the exceptional cast: Shailene Woodley as his severely tested girlfriend, as well as Zachary (Spock) Quinto, Nicholas Cage and Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Rhys Ifans in yet another singular performance. He is becoming quite the character actor. Despite seeing essentially the same story in the great documentary CITIZENFOUR, the dramatized fictionalization of the narrative seemed to bring something to the table as well. Deserved much more attention than it got.

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS  (2016) ***

This sequel to the lively ALICE IN WONDERLAND was haunted by a shadow of absence. It felt like Tim Burton lite because it was Tim Burton lite, featuring a replacement director trying to approximate the style of the iconic cinematic magician. It bombed at the box office. Part of the problem, is that aside from the device of entering Wonderland through a mirror, the story was constructed of whole cloth. There was little here that felt like Lewis Carroll’s voice, just a series of kinetic and colorful adventures involving characters from the two classic books. Perhaps the intent was to nurture an ALICE franchise. If so, that ain’t happenin’. Unlike THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example, there are not dozens and dozens of source books to draw from. Another part of the problem with this film is Johnny Depp. Once an inventive and fascinating actor to watch, his gee-ain’t-I-cute-in-a-weird-sort-of-way act is wearing thin. His Mad Hatter has gotten tired and repetitive, as has his Jack Sparrow. (His Willy Wonka was never welcome in the first place.) But I’m easy to please. I like this kind of rollicking fantasy. It’s augmented reality: stuff that the real world as we know it could never provide. I had fun watching Mia Wasikowska as the intrepid (older) Alice, and I got a kick from Sasha Baron Cohen’s personification of Father Time… who seemed to be channeling Werner Herzog. I have to think it was intentional. Mr. Cohen is a very deft comic who knows what he is doing. Rhys Ifans was also good as usual. That dude is everywhere. Okay, so I was not inspired, but I was entertained despite its many flaws, and isn’t that what fantasy is supposed to be about?

THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER  (1965) *****

This flick was classic western cinema from the opening shot, awash in strains of Elmer Bernstein’s sweeping score. Four ne’er-do-well brothers return to their hometown after long absences to bury their mother- but the locals are not thrilled to see them. Their mother was universally regarded as a saint, struggling hard to make ends meet while bragging about her four boys who had all but abandoned her to her dotage. They are shamed everywhere they go. But when they try to make things right, they discover some dark town secrets involving the murder of their father and the possible theft of their mother’s ranch. The scheming, murderous rancher (a slimy James Gregory), doesn’t plan to give up without a fight, nor does his nervous son, (a sweaty, twitchy Dennis Hopper), so they hire a professional gunslinger to terrorize and intimidate the Elder brothers, (played with the usual contemptuous sneer by George Kennedy). Unfortunately for them, steady gunfighter John Wayne does not intimidate easily. Nor do his brothers gambler Dean Martin, failed businessman Earl Holliman, and rebellious Michael Anderson Jr. as the hotheaded youngest. When a corrupt posse comes after them during a horse drive, the bullets begin to fly. At every turn, this classic is populated by familiar character actors whose bread and butter was westerns. Their names may not be familiar but their faces would be. (Names like John Doucette and James Westerfield and Rhys Williams and Strother Martin and Percy Helton- all of whom appeared in classic Twilight Zone episodes.) Some beautiful wide screen photography here as well, from the dusty desert town set in the middle of nothing, (Mexico substituting for Texas), to gorgous shots along the trail on the horse drive. There’s an explosive ending as well, when Big John Wayne confronts the dirty, theiving scoundral that shot his pa in the back and stole his mother’s ranch. So many great westerns! THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER is certainly one of them.

JUPITER ASCENDING  (2015) **

Descending, is more like it. This Big Bomb stars Tatum Channing and Mila Kunis, who seem to be floundering in every frame of this harsh, noisy bore. The Wachowski siblings, once celebrated for the splashy, audacious MATRIX, seem to have shot their creative wad entirely. This is a total waste of cinema: long, ponderous, flat, silly, useless. Well, almost useless. There was some interest in watching a film where just about everything that could go wrong, did. I only gave it 2 stars because I’m biased toward science fiction and enjoyed some of the production design. I encourage you to go way out of your way to avoid this dreck!

THE FITS  (2015) ****

Toni is a shy, inward 11 year old tomboy who frequents a boxing gym with her older brother. There, she sees a girl’s dance troupe practicing and it perks her interest. Perhaps it is a clique she can find a place in. Shortly after she begins to rehearse with them, one-by-one the older girls start having strange, inexplicable fits that resemble epileptic seizures. Officials can’t pinpoint the cause. Something in the drinking water, perhaps? It comes to the point where you are only hep with the in-crowd if you have had one. Having a fit becomes a status symbol. There’s not much to this really, but what’s here is fascinating- especially by the end when a sudden wave of magical realism washes over the film to produce a truly stunning and unexpected moment. In her debut feature, Anna Rose Holmer has crafted a sly, subversive film, in the way it creeps up on you and gets under your skin despite its calm veneer of everyday normalcy interrupted by mystery. Strangely riveting stuff and pleasantly different.

THE LONGEST YARD  (1974) ***+

I have sought this title for years. I remember it as being part of the zeitgeist of the mid-seventies, but I never got around to it, and certainly had no interest in the Adam Sandler remake in 2005. My takeaway: badly clichéd, but as an entertainment… not bad! I see I had underestimated Burt Reynolds as an actor. He is surprisingly nuanced here, playing a famous if disgraced football player doing time for car theft, who is coerced into coaching a team of prisoners assembled to play the guard’s team. It’s all a sham. The team has been created to be humiliated, and Reynolds is supposed to throw the game. (Give you one guess how that turns out…) It’s not the broad comedy I expected, far too brutal to be very funny. But there is humor. To my surprise- character based human comedy. I can’t clearly tell why it was such a hit at the time. Perhaps it was Burt Reynolds’ “moment”? The passage of time has made this murky.

THE HUNTING GROUND  (2015) ****

College campuses around America have a horrible secret. They do everything in their power to keep this truth from seeing the light of scrutiny. Too late. This searing documentary exposes the criminal way many colleges suppress the truth about sexual assault on their campuses to protect themselves against liability, policies that have made colleges prime hunting grounds for predators. The statistics are off the charts- far above national averages. Is it the frat culture that perpetuates this assault and denial, or something more? For women who have been assaulted on campus, the reporting process can make them feel like they are being raped all over again, this time by indifferent, even hostile councilors who do not have their best interests at heart, and investigators who presume they must have done something to provoke their assault. They are victimized anew by a system that is not really designed to bring them justice, but rather to shield liability. Powerful and heartbreaking stuff!

GRANDMA  (2015) ***+

Knock knock. Who’s there? It me, your granddaughter. I’m pregnant. Can you help me go get an abortion? Hardly sounds like a set up that is very pregnant with humor- but it is! GRANDMA is a surprisingly sweet, gentle relationship film anchored by the great Lily Tomlin as the titular Grandma, wonderful, as usual, as she and her granddaughter hit the road trying, with some difficulty, to raise the money for the procedure. It’s a relationship film- a “chick flick” in the best sense of the term, from Paul Weitz, the director who wrote the achingly funny and tender ABOUT A BOY- and that’s some pedigree.

ANT MAN  (2015) ***

Small superhero, relatively small action film with Paul Rudd and crew bringing plenty of charm to carry us through sometimes thin material. Many echoes of HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS as we experience the world from the tiny eyes of our miniscule, but paradoxically powerful superdude. Enough fun that I’ll see the next Ant Man installment, if there is one- and it does seem likely, doesn’t it?

MORITURI  (1965) ****

Marlon Brando is a German aristocrat who wants nothing more than to sit out WWII in the safety and luxury of his privileged life in Austria, but Military attaché Trevor Howard has another idea. He is blackmailed into acting as a spy for the allies and sent undercover as a fake Nazi S.S. officer to monkeywrench a load of precious rubber under the watchful eyes of Captain Yul Brynner, who is suspicious from the get-go. It’s a taut and gripping story of espionage and sabotage that does not follow a predictable line. The title refers to the Japanese statement meaning: “Those who are about to die salute you”. Look for the wonderful Wally Cox in a small but pivotal role, as well as William Redfeld, who should be familiar to anyone who saw ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. A solid war thriller.

SAUSAGE PARTY  (2016) **+

The previews made this R-rated animated fantasy about the hidden lives of supermarket groceries look a lot more clever than it was. Unfortunately, the trailer showed the single funniest shot: a moment of carnage from the groceries POV, where they are knocked to the ground and mutilated, that is an obvious and hilarious homage to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. If only the film had other fun ideas. It didn’t really. We get the usual Seth Rogan schtick that entertained us in the past, but its getting tired. We hear the “f” word so often, “gratuitous” becomes too obvious a description. Mr. Rogan is so clearly uncomfortable- terribly, terribly uncomfortable with homosexuality, he tries to mine homophobia for what are really, inappropriate laughs- entirely based on a latent fear and disgust of gayness. He accepts and ridicules at the same time. He does this with issues of race as well, and he can be very funny. I’m just not sure he really has anything to say. Trying to have it both ways just doesn’t work for me. Rogan’s fixation with gay sex feels intellectually dishonest at best, puerile and childish at worst. The opening musical number starts everything off on the wrong foot, and despite occasional laughs- mostly at the inanity of it all, everything spirals downhill from there, to an ending that is just one big supermarket orgy, as hot dog and bun are finally united, carnally, and every other product on the shelf begins to go at it like jackrabbits on Viagra. I really wanted this to be better than it was. Seth Rogan is going to need to redeem himself after this SAUSAGE PARTY.

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT  (2014) ***+

Heaven knows why they called this HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. A good film, but often so difficult to watch! I managed to get through it, but I had to make the journey in fits and starts. This is just such bleak territory I couldn’t expose myself to the whole thing in one sitting. This story of street-level heroin addicts and the squalor they have made of their lives was just too depressing. They loiter in the present with no direction, no foreseeable future, no feelings of hope or possibility. They all seemed badly educated, self-centered, poorly groomed, and made amoral by their overwhelming need to satisfy their drug jones. The main character is a mess of a girl named Harley, played by Arielle Holmes, playing a fictionalized version of herself. In a dramatic bit of life imitating art, waiflike wraith Arielle was “discovered” while panhandling, by director Josh Safdie. The script is taken from her unpublished memoir, detailing her life on the mean streets of N.Y.C. It’s certainly not a tale that flatters anyone. Arielle plays herself as a hopelessly and destructively infatuated wreck, obsessed with a senseless lout named Ilya who treats her like a diseased skunk. Ilya had no redeeming qualities that I could discern. When she threatens suicide over her broken heart, he encourages her aggressively. The man engenders no sympathy whatsoever, but the actor, (Caleb Landry Jones, now seen it the popular sensation GET OUT), perfectly embodies the sexy allure of the indifferent, even dangerous “bad boy”. Bad things happen to Harley because of her obsession and her addiction, and then inevitably, bad things happen to Ilya, when the empty crassness of his lifestyle catches up with him. After the final somber scene, we see the dedication: it was all for Ilya, an awfully strange tribute to what appears to have been an awful man! I respected this film a good deal more than I enjoyed it. In the end, we are left with little to no hope of redemption, and to me, part of the purpose of cinema is to hold up a mirror to reality, without disempowering the viewer. There just doesn’t seem to be much point to nihilistic cinema… and this was pretty nihilistic cinema! I can report one definite upside: this fraternity of the bedraggled had a community, such as it was. To some extent, they had each other. The flip side of this: they were enabling each other to make disastrous choices as well. I’ll tell you one thing: HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT sure made me want to pass on heroin! I’ll follow Nancy Reagan’s advice on that…

IXCANUL (“Volcano”)  (2015) ****+

A family of peasant coffee farmers lives hardscrabble lives on the slopes of an intermittently active Guatemalan volcano: a man, woman and their daughter carry on an old way of life in an ever-changing world. The lead actress had a great, iconic Mayan face that was fascinating to look at, but she appeared to be an amateur. Although she had a lot going on, it was all internalized. As an actress, she didn’t seem to have the tools to show us. Her stoic face barely registered, even in moments of extreme stress. This made it a little harder to get inside this otherwise excellent film. IXCANUL is a sad but ultimately accepting story about arranged marriage, and a young girls eagerness to follow her own path. She has given herself to an alcoholic rascal who has promised to take her to America with him, but he’s a man whose promises cannot be trusted. This is a slice-of-life film that unfolds in its own time, requiring some patience. It’s also an ethnographic drama about the lives of indigenous working peoples- in this case, from a culture that we don’t get to see much of in the U.S. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT  (2016) ****

This is a fascinating look at the despotic regime of ruthless Kim Jong Il- father of North Korea’s current gadfly leader. Eager to gain prestige with a world-class national cinema, the dictator had his henchmen kidnap South Korea’s greatest film star Choi Eun-hee. But she wasn’t much good without a good director, so just for good measure, they kidnapped her ex-husband, South Korea’s Shin Sang-ok as well. Choi Eun-hee was given her own apartment in Pyongyang and provided with all her worldly needs. Shin Sang-ok was not quite so fortunate. Upon his arrival, he spent three years in a prison camp until he managed to convince them he was successfully brainwashed enough to be freed and placed in charge of the pariah country’s fledgling film industry. For years the couple plotted together, waiting for the perfect opportunity to successfully escape to the west. Concerned that their countrymen might not believe their story of being kidnapped, Choi Eun-hee hides a mini-cassette recorder in her purse and secretly records hours and hours of private talks with the enigma known as “dear leader” in the DPNK. When they flee to a U.S. embassy with a suitcase full of these tapes, intelligence officers are baffled. Before this, no one in the west had ever even heard Kim Jong Il’s voice. It was hard to tell if they were being played by double agents. Years later, after the death of the once celebrated director, the Korean public is split on their opinion: many believe Choi Eun-hee’s story but doubt her ex-husband’s. After all, his career was in the tank. Hounded by creditors, he had a terrible time raising capital to make his films. Then, suddenly a star in North Korea, he is given carte blanche to make whatever project he cared to. Considering this, now that he is not around to defend himself, many Koreans suspect the mercurial filmmaker was in fact, a deserter and a traitor to his country. My own belief is that he was telling the truth, and that once there in the North, his only option was to try to coddle and play the dictator with kid gloves. After all, his life was at stake, as well as the life of the woman he once loved. It’s a hell of a story in any case, and fascinating to watch- and provides a very different window into the mysterious reclusive communist holdout than, say, THE INTERVIEW!

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON  (2014) ****

Eugene “Gene” Cernan was the last of 12 human beings to set foot on the moon. A thing like that could color your entire life. This interesting and visual documentary explores the way the Apollo astronauts were compelled to live “selfish lives”, where the quest to reach the moon, superseded family ties and obligations. The moonshot put hundreds of lives on hold, as the men chosen for the program retreated into NASA culture and devoted every waking moment to the quest to beat the Ruskies to the punch. Much of the photography is simply dazzling. I kept wondering why I hadn’t seen this stunning footage before. Two interesting takeaways: the quality of extraterrestrial photography improved exponentially between that much-watched first step onto the moon and Cernan’s little-seen final expedition. The world grew jaded so fast, and began to take moon exploration for granted. Humanity was thirsty to move on to the Next Big Thing. Our loss! This later, crystal-clear footage absolutely transports you to the surface of an alien world! It is so stunning, it almost makes one understand how the anti-science crew could have the temerity to doubt we ever went there. For that reason alone, humans should see this eye-popping documentary. Gene Cernan’s is a story about the scars fame can leave on a human life, but it is also the story of mankind fulfilling its most unfathomable possibilities.

GIRLFRIEND’S DAY  (2017) ***+

The redoubtable Bob Odinkirk co-wrote and stars in this middling Netflix movie about a once-celebrated greeting card writer fallen on hard times with an epic case of writer’s block. Things look pretty bleak, until the governor of California declares a new holiday to honor unmarried partners: “Girlfriend’s Day”, instituting a competition for best new greeting card to honor and observe the holiday. There wasn’t a lot to this. It was pretty lite stuff. I was entertained. I am glad the talented Odenkirk has a deal with Netflix to make movies, but I can only hope the next one is at least as good as Better Call Saul. (Expecting it to be as good as Breaking Bad would probably be a bridge too far.)

DHEEPAN  (2016) ****

Dheepan is a military man, an officer in the Tamil Tigers fighting and killing in Sri Lanka’s long civil war, until the bottom of the resistance falls out, and he is forced to flee the country. But he is trapped in a refugee camp and needs a new identity to escape to a new life in the west. His wife and daughters were killed in the conflict, so he hooks up with an equally desperate single woman and an abandoned orphan and together they pose as a family seeking political asylum in Europe. Eventually the ruse works, and they are sent to live as refugees in France. After a while, Deephan begins to embrace the idea that he has formed a new family, born of urgent necessity, but the woman posing as his wife has other ideas. She has an aunt in England, and is not hesitant to abandon her fake husband and daughter to pursue this new life. Their sham family hangs on by a thread. Worse- they have escaped the violence of civil war only to find themselves living in the middle of a terrifying gangland. When the bullets begin to fly, Dheepan has had enough, and he draws a line in the sand, defying terrifyingly ruthless and amoral men. DAHHEPAN leads to a breathless and unexpected but satisfying third act. In the aftermath though, the ending seemed a bit too tidy and contrived, with a key question left unanswered. Still- very good stuff! A timely and humanistic film.

FOR THE LOVE OF SPOCK  (2016) ***

To Adam Nimoy, he was just “dad”. To the rest of us he was half-human, half-Vulcan “Mr. Spock”. Adam gathers all the expected Star Trek faces to pay homage to his celebrated father creating a sweet love letter to an iconic star. Nice.

MOANA WITH SOUND  (1926) *****

In 1925 when moving pictures were a new thing, which had not yet been coupled with sound, Robert J. Flaherty, (whose NANOOK OF THE NORTH was a sensation), took a camera crew to the Samoan island of Savai’i to shoot ethnographic footage of the natives at work and play. The results were considered spectacular at the time, when the world was still a very big place. It was the birth of mass media, and far-flung exotic cultures had not yet become accessible with the click of a mouse. In 1975 Flaherty’s daughter returned to the island on a mission to augment her father’s vision with sound. Monica Flaherty recorded and brilliantly mixed ambient island sounds with the voices of the natives and performances of their musical traditions, marrying it so seamlessly with the images, one cannot tell the film and soundtrack were two separate projects. Unfortunately there were technical issues, exacerbated when the film stock itself deteriorated over time. But in 1980, with the help of filmmaker Jean Renoir, Flaherty’s great-grandson accomplished a major restoration, and the results are stunning. Unfortunately, Flaherty’s films were less than meets the eye. In NANOK, MOANA, and later in MAN OF ARAN, he presented the material as though it accurately reflected the lifestyles and social norms of their times. And this was a lie. Though all three films are fascinating to watch, the authenticity and veracity of all three are called into question when one realizes the extreme manipulation of the filmmaker. These films are anything but cinema verite. Everything we see here was staged. Flaherty carefully “casted” his subjects to reflect his preconceived notions. In MOANA, the unit depicted as a family simply are not. They were natives playing a family. The hunting and tattooing traditions depicted here had already faded by 1925. He asked these people to recreate the daily lives of their grandfathers, then presented it as current and accurate. It’s a form of cultural Imperialism- making the populace look more simple and backward than they really were. In fact, the tattoo process we see here is so intensely painful, it is rarely done anymore, and the man who submitted to it was well paid to undergo what was supposedly a common ritual of manhood. So to appreciate his films, one needs to divorce oneself from the fantasy that one is watching documentary. This is just not strictly true. The viewer is being manipulated. But look beyond (or overlook this), and the film itself is a blissful dream. It seizes you and drags you into another world that the progress of man has left behind. Take MOANA WITH SOUND on its own terms and it is a pretty amazing experience.

THE PROPAGANDA GAME  (2015) ***

Spanish documentarian Álvaro Longoria was granted special access to take his cameras and peek inside the secretive “hermit kingdom: of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPNK) better known in the west as South Korea. Results are… about what you’d expect. But not quite. We see some shots that mirror life in the west to a shocking extent: families rollerblading in a public facility, for example. But when the filmmaker insists on visiting a Catholic church to honor his faith, there seems little doubt that the church and the parishioners are all cardboard cutouts. It’s a drama, a detailed scam. There is no real congregation at all, just an elaborate show for their foreign visitors and their camera. Of course Longoria’s every movement is controlled, his contacts monitored and restricted. Álvaro sees and hears what the regime wants him to see and hear. So that’s what we get. His handler is a fellow Spaniard, but as “Special Representative of the Foreign Ministry” he’s become an apologist and mouthpiece for the regime, a complete parrot eager to convince anyone who will listen that the west’s view of the DPNK is merely propaganda. Longoria buys into this to some extent, toying with the idea that we can’t really know what’s going on in the closed Communist kingdom because of the machinations of both propaganda machines. At one point he notes that the propaganda he is exposed to there almost has him brainwashed himself. Here is the problem with the film: we have no idea how much of what we see is to be believed. Equating the “propaganda” of the U.S. and North Korea is just a false equivalency, not worthy of being taken seriously. We get entirely too much bloviating from his government mouthpiece and this unbalanced, unfiltered propaganda gets tiring. There is some amazing, previously unseen footage here though, and as a document of how the North Korean government wishes to be seen by the rest of the world, it has a contribution to make.

CROSSFIRE HURRICANE  (2012) ****+

Okay- I capitulate. The Rolling Stones are, were, will always be The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. After seeing the excellent 2008 Marty Scorsese Stones concert film SHINE A LIGHT, a was already made aware that the latter day Stones are perhaps every bit as good as they ever were, if perhaps in a smoother, less energetic way, as they slide into old age. (Charlie Watts has been there for a while…) This project was based on sound recordings interviewing band members about their early years, expanded and enlarged by a virtual time capsule of fantastic stills and moving images including rip-roaring concert footage, cultural signposts culled from the media and often surprisingly tender behind the scenes moments. The result is a fittingly woozy fever dream of life as a Rolling Stone at the start of the excessive seventies. Though this era marked my coming of age, I never saw the Stones live, and was surprised how little I actually knew about them, despite having bought at least a dozen of their albums when I was a young, music-worshipping, counter-culture psychedelic-warrior. I was impressed what an educated and thoughtful man Mick Jagger appears to have always been, and certainly my respect for Keith Richards went through the roof. It is impressive that this man known for excessive self-satisfaction of his desires chose his rock ‘n’ roll band over his seemingly insurmountable appetite for heroin and booze. Impressive also, to hear from Charlie Watts that although most rock bands take their lead from the drummer, The Stones are different because as the drummer, he takes his cues from Keith- meaning he plays slightly behind the band while Bill Wyman said he was playing slightly ahead: a recipe for musical tension that could cause the music to fly apart at any moment. This kaleidoscope of a film is a chronicle of the uninhibited hedonism of the times. The Stones were not the only figures who spent the decade drowning in sex and drugs- so did many of their fans. It all gets a bit much by the end. The thing is, on the surface of it, they lied when they said they can’t get no satisfaction. The swooning hoards of screaming girls literally wetting themselves that met this declaration rivaled Beatlemania in its wild frenzy. They each had plenty of opportunities to get satisfaction- and that appears to be what they sought. But ultimately, “if it feels good do it” is an empty mantra. It doesn’t lead to satisfaction. After death and attrition, the Rolling Stones rolls on past all that extraneous stuff. Now, they are back to rocking for the joy of it, taking their satisfaction from the music- and that’s a great thing for rock ‘n’ roll.

CAFÉ SOCIETY  (2016) ****+

Feature 46 and counting! Woody Allen is a world treasure. Critics liked this one and the public loved it. I see why! It’s his latest in a series of gentle, nostalgic relationship films, again populated by the hottest actors working today. Every Woody Allen film features an avatar of the man himself, but Woody has just gotten too long in the tooth to play himself anymore, so he always picks a surrogate. Here, we have Jesse Eisenberg, very good indeed, filling in for the role that would have been played by Woody in his youth. It’s the story of a green New Yorker, transplanted into the heart of Hollywood’s glamour age when he goes to work for his uncle, a serviceable Steve Carell playing a major industry powermonger. When you meet his uncle’s secretary, it’s easy to see why he falls instantly in love with her. Kristen Stewart has never been more lovely and alluring. What he doesn’t know is that he and his uncle share the same romantic obsession, and eventually- she will have to choose between riches and high society with a safe older man, or the tantalizing promise of an unproven young love. Like the equally wonderful HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, this story does not go where we expect it- but somewhere much, much better. The script is a marvel. The dialogue, fresh and lively- even when Allen is covering some of the same ground he has covered many, many times before- as in Big Issues of death, existence and mortality. The amazing thing: he still has funny and revealing existential insights to offer. Once this film veered off into unexpected territory it just got better and better. The family scenes were an absolute delight. Check out this wonderful (edited) dialogue from the actors playing Rose and Marty (Jeannie Berlin & Ken Stott):

ROSE: First (my son becomes) a murderer, then he becomes a Christian! Which is worse?

MARTY: He explained it to you: The Jews don’t believe in an afterlife.

ROSE: We’re all afraid of dying, Marty.

MARTY: I’m not afraid of dying.

ROSE: You’re too stupid to appreciate the implications.

MARTY: I didn’t say I like the idea. I’ll resist death with everything I have, but when (he) comes with his scythe to cut me down, I’ll go. I’ll protest! I’ll curse! I’ll go under protest.

ROSE: Protest to who?

MARTY: I’ll protest to silence. I’ll protest because my whole life I pray and I pray and there’s never an answer!

ROSE: No answer is also an answer… Too bad the Jewish religion doesn’t have an afterlife. They’d get a lot more customers!

Classic Woody Allen. Bergman meets the Marx Brothers. The color, music, and impeccable art direction were all first class, as always. The previews promised an entertaining film, which it was. But CAFÉ SOCIETY managed to be more despite its limited milieu. It’s a sweet, warm, wry love letter to love and youth and the human spirit- and one of the great movieman’s best latter day films! I need Woody Allen to live forever. Scientists! Get busy on this.

DRESSED TO KILL  (1941) ***

This was the third of seven times Lloyd Nolan would play hardboiled noir gumshoe detective Mike Shayne. It was a murder mystery formula that began with a novel in 1937 then spawned 76 more books, 300 short stories, a TV series and a total of 12 movies. Here, the no nonsense, rough-edged sleuth is ever on the verge of tying the knot- but first he has this pesky double-murder to solve. He has a certain relationship with the press that lines his pockets handsomely, if he can do his usual thing and pinpoint the murderer (or murderers) before his friendly rival the police captain does. William Demarest of My Three Sons plays the crusty, buffoonish cop, and he is a great foil for Lloyd’s sardonic gadfly. There was apparently a bit of MacGuyver to the character, in the clever way he formulated and tested his hypotheses. Entertaining, but hardly THE THIN MAN.

THE TRIBE  (2014) ***

This stark Ukrainian drama has a gimmick virtually no other film ever made boasts of: All the dialogue is signed by deaf actors- and there are no subtitles available for those of us who do not understand this language of gestures. The filmmaker could have chosen this route I guess, but that would have been an altogether different film. The story involves a teenager starting at a new boarding school for the deaf. He finds out quickly that it’s a dangerous place, run by vicious thugs who shake-down and intimidate every new student, recruiting those with potential as contributing gang members. They brutally haze new kids and run a prostitution ring with some of the girls at the school. He soon learns that the only way to survive is to join the gang, and become a pimp himself. This is less an explicit film than it is an unblinking one. The camera sits there, unblinking for raw, carefully lit and photographed sex, heinous violence and a back alley abortion scene that is as gut-wrenching as anything I’ve ever seen. Bleak! Desperate! Hard to watch. Having to pay close attention to the inflections on the actor’s faces was exhausting after a while. I had to do something a person like me who truly loves movies should always avoid doing: I had to take a few breaks and watch lighter fare. (I have been enjoying the first season of the Netflix incarnation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. That’ll cleanse the palate!) But I kept coming back for some reason. (A glutton for punishment?) There is a fascination with trying to follow the action when the dialogue is incomprehensible. And it got much better… until things came to a truly horrible end.

UNDER THE SHADOW  (2016) ***+

Iranian cinema is getting awfully good. Or perhaps we are only seeing the really good ones. This is the second supernatural/horror film I’ve seen from Iran. I guess I should stop being surprised at the topics religious mullahs allow in Iranian cinema. This one is a tale of the terrors of war, coupled with a malevolent spirit. It is near the end of the long and painful Iran-Iraq war. A woman who is not allowed to be a doctor because of the politics of her youth insists on staying in their Teheran apartment when her husband is sent to the front lines, despite scary rumors that Iraq was planning on bombing the city soon. Their little girl is wracked with anxiety, and clings to the rag doll her father gave her. When the bombs do start falling, the prized doll suddenly goes missing, and the girl falls mysteriously ill. Strange things begin to happen, pushing the woman to the edge of sanity. Is it possible the whisperings of a supposedly mute boy are true- that an evil djinn, whipped up by the winds of war, has hitchhiked on an Iraqi missile that hit their building, but failed to explode? It’s a small film, contained and tense with a real payoff at the end. Good scary fun from our Islamic brothers and sisters in Persia.

MOANA  (2016) ****+

I have a new favorite Disney heroine and her name is “Moana”! Not resting on their laurels, not mining old material for new profits, Disney just got everything right in this heartfelt Polynesian adventure. It’s a big mythic story about the daughter of a Samoan chieftain who is chosen by the sea to return her people to their traditional seafaring ways. Kinda big stuff. She must find a famous hero to help her restore the heart of her island to its rightful place- the place he stole it from long ago, causing ecological and cultural calamity. The sea calls her, but her father forbids it. Will Moana answer the call of destiny or the bonds of duty? The animation is rich and lively, the colors are delicious, the songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda are simply terrific, the characters are delightful from Dwayne Johnson’s demigod hero Maui to the chicken- who is less anthropomorphized than any animal in Disney history. It’s just… a chicken, but so much is done with so little. The whole venture is fabulously imaginative and respectful to the source culture the story is drawn from without sacrificing entertainment value. There are intense action sequences and the ending is perfect. There is something so obvious, no one can see it, except the visionary Moana, providing a big, bravura iconic final shot that absolutely thrills, the way great movies do. Our time desperately needs heroines like her, to restore the heart of the planet and connect the world’s cultures to one another. Loved it, loved it, loved it!

PURPLE RAIN  (1984) ***+

It took me 33 years to get around to this popular and seminal film. (Yeah, I’m a bit slow on the uptake…) It sucked. This is really a very, very stinky turd of a movie- in every scene that Prince is not performing. Fortunately, there are lots of performances, and in them, Prince proves that he was a force of nature to be reckoned with! Really, this is at best a two-star film, but with all these spine-tingling performances, a compromise was in order: thus: 3-and-a-half stars. The biggest problem was not the shoddy script that would have us believe Prince was losing a battle of talents with Morris Day, (like comparing Superman and Mr. Magoo!), but the truly awful, amateurish acting. The woman playing his battered mother was not 1% believable. Apollonia, his romantic interest, has great boobs, (or did, 33 years ago), but no acting chops whatsoever. Morris Day recruits her for his new girl band without ever seeing her perform, presumably just to poke Prince in the eye. Ridiculous! And the band Apollonia 6, (Vanity 6 in real life), is atrocious. Their song “Sex Shooter” is a horrible embarrassment, yet we are supposed to buy it when the crowd goes apeshit over it. The character Prince plays is vapid, vainglorious, haughty, rude, belittling, violent and petulant. Why on earth he would want to present himself this way is beyond me. (I get the clumsy parallel between his dysfunctional relationship and that of his parents. It simply didn’t work, because no effort was made to connect the two.) His friend Billy Sparks played himself, but as a two-dimensional person. Morris Day was so over the top I kept being reminded of Stepin Fetchit, a nasty racial stereotype. Prince, himself, was not bad. But he was not very good either- just flat and unexciting offstage, with the persona of a spoilt child, not the mega-talented musician he was. The only good acting here comes from Clarence Williams III playing his tormented father. So why is this film worth seeing? Because of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” and “When Doves Cry” and the masterful shredding on “Purple Rain”. (“I Would Die 4 U” goes on a bit too long and overstays its welcome.) Eliminate all the awkward, clumsy dramatic structure and you are left with a five star performance film. The best that can be said of it is that it was not as breathtakingly awful as UNDER THE CHERRY MOON and GRAFFITI BRIDGE, the vanity projects that followed. It’s a shame someone he trusted did not whisper in his ear that he was a great artist, worthy of waiting for a great film to showcase his talents. Sadly, that never happened for Prince, or his adoring fans- like me!

NEVADA SMITH  (1966) ****

Steve McQueen anchored this horse opera about the price of revenge, and herein lies the problem. This could have been a five star classic, but although certainly a prettyboy in his time, McQueen was not much of an actor. Everything he played reeked of the character he played in THE GREAT ESCAPE. He was a one trick pony, and he is flat and unconvincing as the half-breed seeking the ruthless gang of killers who butchered his parents. But this film has scope, and grit and the great score often associated with westerns. And it has a supporting cast to die for- jam packed with familiar western actors plying their craft. We get a nasty Karl Malden, a virtuous Brian Keith, a mercurial Arthur Kennedy, (so great in LARENCE OF ARABIA), as well as Martin Landau as a vicious knife-wielding thug, a comely Suzanne Pleshette, plus Pat Hingle, Howard Da Silva, Paul Fix, John Douchette, Bert Freed and Stanley Adams. (Look up the faces. You know them!) As well as Italian football star turned very good actor Raf Vallone, in a pivotal role as the priestly voice of redemption. Great locations, lots of action, but a deeply flawed ending. It’s not that it wasn’t the right choice for the story, it was just perhaps the single most predictable ending to any film I have ever seen, and McQueen does nothing to pull it off. Ignore Steve McQueen’s hopelessly cardboard centerpiece and you have a very enjoyable yarn.

VICTORIA  (2015) ****

Victoria is visiting Berlin from her native Madrid, and she’s on the town for a night of fun before she has to go to work. She leaves the disco to be willingly waylaid by a gang of aggressively friendly locals, intent on extending the party ‘til dawn. They charm her, and Victoria’s an independent, easygoing young woman, so she goes for it- but does not get quite the “party” she’d imagined when she finds herself embroiled in something way above her head. The thing about this film that sets it apart almost immediately, is that like the Hitchcock classic ROPE and the interminable RUSSIAN ARK, the whole film plays out in real time- in one continuous and at times, miraculous shot. German actor/director Sebastian Schipper is the man at the helm, and his is really one impressive achievement. My first question as the closing credits rolled was: “How many takes did it take to get that?!” I looked it up. Sebastian had three takes in the budget. (For insurance against his risky venture, the producers required him to shoot a traditional edited version first. Schipper hated it.) In the first continuous take, the actors were too cautious, in the second, they were too wild. After an unpleasant group bull session, the third take was the Goldilocks take. It is just so perfect, you frequently forget about the gimmick, enthralled. The acting from the two principals (Laia Costa as Victoria and Frederick Lau as Sonne) is simply stunning. A big chunk of the script was improvised, and it all feels natural and unforced. This cinematic device was more than a gimmick, because it served to envelope you in Victoria’s world, drawing you in until you are experiencing her nightmarish misadventure with her. The big rip on this flick is the predictability of the ending. To this criticism, the film is guilty as charged. Once it gets started, it’s all good, (if occasionally the scenes go on too long and you begin to long for a cutaway), the last act is exciting and the end is… completely predictable. Here’s an idea! Don’t predict! Just cue this puppy up and hit ‘play’, and enter Victoria’s world without expectation. The improbability of the premise is not something you have to dwell on while watching it. Suspend your disbelief and VICTORIA is one wild, intense ride.

BURN!  (1969) ***

Marlon Brando is an unapologetic aristocrat who works for the British government as a provocateur, stirring up native dissent on an Antilles rubber plantation to keep the profits flowing for big business. He is practically a man without a conscience, and when the popular uprising he orchestrated gets out of hand, he switches gears and starts a counter-insurgency, to defeat the very man he just installed in power. Not a great film, but there is a powerful message here about the real power behind shifting governments. The production values are fairly low, some of the acting is flat, but once again, Brando is an undeniable presence in this film. His character is just so unreasonably cocksure of himself, we have no real sympathy for him, and his ultimate fate just feels like justice.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK  (1952) ***+

Unexpected! The poster for this minor gem I found on Netflix screamed “NOIR!” but it lied. This is not film noir it is a psychological drama, and a pretty good one. Richard Widmark is a bit of a cad. He’s a playboy pilot who refuses to really grow up. He keeps his chanteuse girlfriend at a distance, using her as a plaything more than a partner or lover. But she has had enough. Played by a lovely young Anne Bancroft, she sends him a “Dear John” letter saying it’s over between them. She is ready for something more serious, but he is obviously not the man to provide that. On the rebound, he notices a comely lass in the hotel room across the courtyard, and rings her room to invite himself over. The lass in question is a typically winsome and breathy Marilyn Monroe, so this is completely understandable. But what he does not know, is that she is damaged goods. After losing her fiancé to WWII she went into a tailspin, attempting suicide and ending up in an institution. But she is out now, and setting up a new life in a new city, looked after by her uncle the elevator operator at the hotel. She is babysitting a difficult child, but she is more focused on Widmark, mistaking him for her long lost lover miraculously returned from war. He is very good here, slowly morphing from a bastard into a caring human being, as he gradually becomes aware that the beauty he is flirting with is seriously disturbed. As Widmark matures into a feeling person, Bancroft may just give him a second look. There are some truly scary scenes with the child, when we realize Monroe may be capable of some very awful things in pursuit of the man she mistakes for another. It builds to a tense and exciting climax. Good stuff. Effective ending. Nice surprise!

ARRIVAL  (2016) ****

I really wanted to catch this title on the Big Screen, but my wallet was stubbornly uncooperative, so I had to be patient and wait for my library to get this rightfully acclaimed blockbuster from talented director Denis Villeneuve. It is brainy sci-fi of the highest order, and it lurches you right into the action with very minimal set up. It’s a thrilling and terrifying conceit: a fleet of rough, black egg-shaped U.F.O.s suddenly descend from the heavens, and hover silently in twelve seemingly random locations across the globe. They have arrived. Now what? What, exactly, are their intentions, and how will humans react to first contact with extraterrestrial life? Amy Adams is damn good in this, and it begins with her linguistic scientist’s narration, ruminating on where a story truly begins. This becomes relevant towards the end when the malleability of time becomes central to the plot. Forest Whitaker mumbles listlessly and Jeremy Renner gives it his best wide-eyed wonder, but it’s Amy’s film, as she rushes to decipher the alien message before reactionaries in other countries make a potentially disastrous military miscalculation. Beauty, brains and heart, Ms. Adams has it all, anchoring an otherwise heady film in deep emotion. There’s plenty of unlikely stuff here, but as in all science fiction, a viewer has just gotta go with it. And this is an easy one to go with, straight through to its captivating end.

UNDER THE SUN  (2015) ****

Curiously, my third documentary about life in North Korea this month, and my second film that begins with the words “Under the”. This one and THE PROPAGANDA GAME both test the patience of the average viewer. Listening to unfiltered fascist propaganda for scene after scene does get tiresome. But unlike the first film, Russian director Vitaly Mansky skillfully uses the editing process to reveal the bullshit beneath every staged moment. UNDER THE SUN film purports to tell the story of a year in the life of Zin-mi, a ‘typical’ North Korean girl preparing to enter take quasi-military Korean Children’s Union on Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, popularly called “The Day of Shining Star”, but it’s all a scripted fiction. We see the Korean director coaching his subjects: “Bigger! Happier! More joyful!” We are supposedly inside Zin-mi’s household at dinnertime, but he tells the adorable child patsy to act “as if you were at home eating with your family”. These adults sitting at the table with her are actors, playing Mom and Dad. To remove all doubt, the takes begin before the Korean manipulator calls “action”. It is always clear that this is in no way a real “documentary”. We see masses going to work in a factory, and large groups of kids heading merrily to school, but the subtitles reveal the truth: Average North Korean kids probably live in dormitories on the school grounds and the adults stay in barracks on the worksite. The work is more like slavery, and the “education” is nothing more than indoctrination and pacification. Effusive praise for “the great leader” and his “honorable father” fills every waking moment. It blares from TV sets and loudspeakers, and pours from the mouths of an endless parade of comically over-decorated military men, coats sagging under the weight of silver and gold, as they deliver obsequious, long-winded speeches. It’s horribly painful stuff to watch. Riveting and horrible. If we end up in another war with the North Korea, I will certainly understand why. For me, the worst of it, is being treated to actual child abuse. I’ve seen things like it before- but that was acting- kids pretending. This was the real deal. This regime tortures its own kids routinely, in pursuit of the glory of the state. We watch a child struggle pitifully to stay awake during a long, repetitive speech to her class, knowing that if she nods off, her entire family could be brutally punished. We see a young dancer driven far beyond her breaking point, then ridiculed by her instructor when her performance naturally begins to decline. The look on her face as she struggles with all her being to resist collapsing in tears is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever witnessed. I only wish it were fiction!

EXTRAORDINARY TALES  (2015) ***+

This visually striking animated compilation of five Edgar Allen Poe stories included ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, and ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’. Each film is directed by accomplished Disney animator Raul Garcia, but animated in a slightly different style, featuring narration by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi and Julian Sands. Each held some fascination, although the nearly wordless final tale, ‘The Mask of Red Death’, seemed somehow lesser. Too bad the device created to tie the stories together fell so flat. Garcia created a framework where Poe himself has been transformed into a talking raven who carries on a conversation with a statue of a female Death in a spooky graveyard. She points out how obsessed Poe was with Death his entire, rather brief life, urging him to let go and come to her cold embrace. This device sounds good, isn’t. It just falls, lifeless. But most of the segments are very cool indeed. There is some beautiful design, and a lot of talent obviously went into this moody anthology.

A SOUND OF THUNDER  (2005) ***

I could not have been one minute into this film before I realized that either the film was based on one of my favorite Ray Bradbury short stories, or the Bradbury estate had a lawsuit to file. As a young teen I got a tattered paperback copy of a 1952 collection of the great writer’s short stories called ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’. The fantasy that most captured my imagination in it was A Sound of Thunder, a story of time travelling T-Rex hunters who accidentally change the course of evolutionary history by stepping on a butterfly. The idea is greatly expanded here by capable director Peter Yates, and though sporting this high pedigree, and peppered with accomplished actors from Catherine McCormack to David Oyelowo, it’s a pretty poor effort. The usually reliable Ben Kingsley is silly bombast here and Edward Burns is flat and uninspiring. It’s really a 2-star movie, but it entertained, despite some very amateur acting and lots of wildly improbable action, and it reminded me throughout what a great story this overblown overreach was based on.

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> Coming up soon: some big films from last year that I never got around to, including Martin Scorsese’s latest (reputed) stunner SILENCE, which was mysteriously ignored at the Oscars… Strange thing. So until then: Vive Cine, my brothers and sisters!

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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