JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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joker-2019

The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

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HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

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hands of stone

Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

—END—

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

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mary_shelleys_frankenstein_ posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!

—Michael

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).

I remember being so excited when I first heard about it.  It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster.  And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.  What could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution.  The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.

As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN.  The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera.  I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one.  There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch.  And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.

Take the creation scene for example.  A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way.  It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary.  How about just flicking a switch?

The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant.  The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it.  That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie:  there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror.  It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.

Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.

For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit.  This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes.  Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob.  We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.

The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay.  It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.

We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all.  The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.

The acting is decent.  Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential.  I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation.  This doesn’t really happen in this movie.

Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster.  It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film.  De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish.  I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster.  I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie.  The make-up job here did not impress me very much.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work:  the love story between Victor and Elizabeth.  Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie.  Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.

If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature.  This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done

And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production.  Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle.  It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family.  This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.

Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.

 

—END—

 

 

 

KILLING SEASON (2013) Fires Blanks

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Killing Season poster

Streaming Video Review:  KILLING SEASON (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

 

Robert De Niro sure was busy this past year.

 

In 2013, he appeared in THE BIG WEDDING, THE FAMILY, LAST VEGAS, GRUDGE MATCH, had an uncredited bit in AMERICAN HUSTLE, and he starred in the subject of today’s column, KILLING SEASON, now available on Streaming Video.

 

KILLING SEASON opens in the 1990s during the Bosnian conflict as American forces capture a group of Serbian soldiers responsible for some pretty nasty atrocities.  Disturbed by what they have seen, the American soldiers take the law into their own hands and execute the Serbian fighters, but one of the Serbs escapes.

 

The action switches to present day where we meet the soldier Emil Kovac (John Travolta) who escaped from the firing squad.  Emil learns the identity of the officer who ordered the death of his fellow soldiers, Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) and travels to the United States to hunt him down.

 

Lucky for Emil, Ford has become somewhat of a hermit and lives in a cabin high up in the Appalachian Mountains.  Ford keeps in touch with his son Chris (Milo Ventimiglia) and his family, but that’s it.  Other than this, he’s all alone.  Emil couldn’t have asked for a better situation.

 

When Emil moves in and captures Ford, he doesn’t kill him.  Instead, he tortures him in an effort to make him confess his wartime sins, but Ford is a tough egg to crack and escapes.  The two men battle back and forth in the wilderness, each coming up with worse tortures for the other, until eventually they come to some unexpected realizations about themselves.

 

Yeah, right.

 

I had a lot of problems with this movie, even though for the most part, I enjoyed watching De Niro play the tough Benjamin Ford.  It was fun to see him play such a resilient character.  In addition, some of the scenes of torture were intense and not for the squeamish, and these scenes were well done.  However, the problems I had with this film far outweighed the good stuff.

 

Let’s start with the biggest problem with this one:  John Travolta as a Serbian soldier?  Are you kidding me?  Let me just say this again so you know you read correctly:  John Travolta is cast as a heavily ethnic Serbian soldier.  Why?

 

Why didn’t the filmmakers hire someone with a more appropriate ethnic background?  No offense to Travolta, but it really destroys any credibility this movie has.  Travolta never convinced me that he was the real deal.  Throughout the whole movie, Emil does not seem like a real person but like a Serbian character being played by an American actor.  It just doesn’t work.

 

I hate to say it, but Travolta’s accent is awful.  He sounds as if he’s starring in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch.  I haven’t heard an accent this bad since Steve Martin attempted to be Inspector Clouseau.  Speaking of Martin, I don’t think he would have been any less convincing than Travolta had he played Emil.  It’s a laughable performance, unfortunately.

 

The make-up department didn’t help.  Travolta’s hair and beard look like they were painted on his head and face.

 

To make matters even worse, there’s barely anyone else in the movie besides De Niro and Travolta, so Travolta has no place to hide.  Basically, you have a movie about two main characters, and since one of these characters is completely unconvincing, that’s a huge problem with this film. 

 

Milo Ventimiglia from TV’s HEROES and MOB CITY plays De Niro’s son Chris.  It’s a small thankless role, and Ventimiglia isn’t allowed to do much with it.  He was much more memorable as Rocky Balboa’s son in ROCKY BALBOA (2006).

 

Interestingly enough, while Ventimiglia played De Niro’s son Chris here in KILLING SEASON, his co-star from MOB CITY Jon Bernthal played De Niro’s son in GRUDGE MATCH.  Not only that, but Ventimiglia played Sylvester Stallone’s son in ROCKY BALBOA.  Stallone, of course, co-starred with De Niro and Bernthal in GRUDGE MATCH.   Got all that?

 

The screenplay by Evan Daugherty isn’t very strong, nor is the direction by Mark Steven Johnson.  Some key scenes are handled awkwardly.  For example, in the opening execution scene, we don’t actually see Emil escape.  We sort of find out what happens later, but it’s all rather murky.

 

As a result, I never completely understood Emil’s motives.  Was he seeking revenge for the death of his fellow soldiers?  Perhaps, but the movie doesn’t make this clear.  It would have been different had we seen Ford tormenting Emil or ordering the death of the soldiers before Emil manages to escape, but we don’t.  In fact, we never clearly see Ford’s involvement in the execution.  A man with Emil’s conviction and drive needs a more compelling reason for his motives.  As it stands now, it seems like just an excuse to set the plot point in motion that Emil will hunt Ford.

 

The story just never wowed me, nor was the dialogue all that clever.  De Niro’s character was somewhat likable, mostly because he suffered the horrors of war and came away from the experience as a man who wanted no part of it anymore, but Travolta’s Emil was a poorly written character who was made even worse by Travolta’s strange performance.

 

Director Mark Steven Johnson achieves mixed results.  As I said, some of the torture sequences were effectively disturbing, but the film really lacks suspense and excitement.  When the film becomes a cat and mouse adventure in the wilderness between Ford and Emil, it falls unexpectedly flat.

 

Mark Steven Johnson also directed the Ben Affleck flop DAREDEVIL (2003), and KILLING SEASON isn’t much better.

 

When all is said and done, KILLING SEASON is a pretty lame attempt at an action thriller.  While I enjoyed De Niro’s performance as the gritty tough-as-nails Benjamin Ford, I couldn’t get past Travolta’s bizarre take on the Serbian soldier Emil.

 

KILLING SEASON has a 91 minute running time, but the end credits roll at the 81 minute mark.  This was actually a good thing. 

 

Mercifully, KILLING SEASON is a short season.

 

—END—