Matilda the Musical review

MATILDA THE MUSICAL

21 February – 17 March
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most iconic heroines in children’s literature took the West End and Broadway by storm, and now she brings her brand of adorable, inspiring defiance to the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Matilda the Musical is based on the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name, which was adapted into a film directed by Danny DeVito in 1996. This musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, with original direction by Matthew Warchus. The production was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to win five Tony Awards and seven Olivier Awards. Matilda the Musical is currently tied with Hamilton as the musical with the most Olivier Awards.

The title character is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old whose talents go unnoticed by her callous and shallow parents, the Wormwoods (Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor). Matilda finds solace in the library, where she regales the librarian Mrs Phelps (Nompumelelo Mayiyane) with stories.

Matilda begins primary school at Crunchem Hall. The school is presided over with an iron fist by the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Ryan de Villiers), a child-hating former Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Matilda’s kindly form teacher Miss Honey (Bethany Dickson) recognises that Matilda is way ahead of her peers and wants to move her up to the Primary 5 class, something Trunchbull vehemently opposes. Matilda soon galvanises her fellow students and Miss Honey, leading a revolt in the school against Miss Trunchbull, unearthing startling secrets in the process.

The production that has arrived in Singapore is the International Tour, which originated in October 2018 in South Africa. The distinctive set design by Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes, has been retained and ingeniously adapted to tour. The set has a Scrabble tile motif, and the sometimes-messy, sometimes-garish, always-charming look fits into the show’s concept of a five-year-old’s view of the world. The show also features illusions designed by Paul Kieve, and a signature number in which actors on swings fly out over the audience.

On the surface, Matilda the Musical looks silly and over-the-top, but that exterior belies great depth and poignancy. This is a story about a misunderstood, unloved girl who stands up for herself, takes on the world and along the way, finally finds an adult or two who cares. The musical’s broad, sometimes rude humour and loud, over-the-top performances are very much in line with author Dahl’s sensibilities. The Crunchem Hall crest is a drawing of a child being hit over the head with a hammer – Dahl’s books often feature children facing off against grotesque adults, stepping into a cruel world and shaping it for themselves. Matilda is perhaps the best example of this in his bibliography.

The show’s signature songs “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up” convey a child’s defiance and wistfulness in elegant, honest terms. Minchin’s lyrics burst with Dahl-ian wit: Trunchbull sneeringly says of “the odour of rebellion”, “This headmistress/Finds this foul odifer-ous-ness/Wholly olfactorily insulting.” There are moments when the music plays up the chaos that surrounds Matilda, and other moments that are lyrical and quiet – the transition between these modes never feels abrupt or jarring.

The title role is shared by four young actors: Singaporean Sofia Poston, who played the role at our performance, and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo and Kitty Harris.

It must be incredibly daunting for anyone to get onstage in front of an audience of 2000 and perform, let alone for a nine-year-old. The role of Matilda is a demanding one that Poston tackles with remarkable confidence. She strikes the balance of portraying a character who’s precocious without being obnoxious. Of the four actresses playing Matilda, she is the youngest and physically the smallest – this enhances the ‘David and Goliath’ factor intended when Matilda faces off against Trunchbull. A tiny powerhouse who’s cute but not twee and who believably conveys an unbreakable fighting spirit, Poston has more than done Singapore proud as the country’s representative in the lead cast.

Ryan de Villiers is a magnificent Trunchbull, clearly relishing every second he’s onstage. The character’s costume creates a comically nightmarish figure that de Villiers captures with remarkable physicality. The role is typically played in drag, because casting a tall, physically-imposing man enhances the afore-mentioned David and Goliath element. De Villiers must perform gymnastics in his restrictive costume, which he does with delicious aplomb. Trunchbull is by design a cartoonish villain, but de Villiers still makes her utterly threatening and finds whatever thin sliver of soul is buried deep within her.

Bethany Dickson, who has been the leading lady in South African and touring productions of musicals like The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain and Grease, plays Miss Honey with the gentleness and timidity one expects from the character. The bond between Miss Honey and Matilda is a key emotional component to the show, and one that Dickson must develop with four different young actresses. Miss Honey is the nurturing presence who finds her own voice when Matilda enters her classroom and her life, and some of the musical’s most touching moments are between Miss Honey and Matilda.

Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor ham it way up as the Wormwoods, and are complemented by Kent Jeycocke as Mrs Wormwood’s dance partner Rudolpho. These are parents who are afraid that their child is too intelligent and reads too much – while many Singaporeans can relate to the ‘school is prison’ element of the show, this seems a touch more absurd. It’s all a piece of the musical’s heightened nature, and Jubber, Taylor and Jeycocke prove adept at physical comedy.

The standouts among Matilda’s schoolmates include Jack Fokkens as Bruce, Taylor Salgado as Lavender and Joshua LeClair as Nigel. At our performance, Amanda was played by Kitty Harris, one of the other Matildas, meaning each Matilda must also learn the part of Amanda. This reviewer was a touch dispirited to see the “floss” dance popularised by Backpack Kid/Russell Horning and later featured in the online game Fortnite make an appearance, but perhaps that’s just down to this reviewer’s own crustiness and resentment.

Matilda the Musical is a triumph as an adaptation and as a standalone piece of musical theatre that serves as a showcase for incredibly talented performers. It’s funny, moving and has its share of gasp-inducing set-pieces. It’s also a great opportunity for families to have post-show discussions about education, what it means to raise and nurture children, and growing up. It’s youth in revolt in the most enchanting way.

Jedd Jong

Photos courtesy of BASE Entertainment

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Top of the Class: Matilda the Musical press call

TOP OF THE CLASS

Matilda the Musical takes Singapore audiences back to school

By Jedd Jong

A precocious young hero who starts a revolution against the cruel principal of her prison-like school: it’s a story that ignites something in every child. Matilda began life as a novel by celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl, first published in 1988. It was adapted into a radio play, a 1996 film directed by Danny Devito, and a blockbuster 2010 musical.

Matilda the Musical is one of the most-acclaimed stage productions in recent memory, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012 – the most ever won for a single production at the time. The show also won five Tony Awards, including best book.

Featuring a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda is show that has captured the imagination of theatregoers and made many misty-eyed. The musical was originally directed by Matthew Warchus, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and first staged at the RSC’s home, the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The show then moved to the Cambridge Theatre on the West End where it is still playing. A Broadway production ran from 2013 to 2017.

In addition to Roald Dahl’s enduring characters and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, audiences can also look forward to acrobatics, set pieces including a signature moment involving swings, and mystifying illusions designed by Paul Kieve.

The titular character is a five-year-old with a penchant for reading, a curiosity about the world and a mysterious, possibly supernatural power. Matilda is neglected by her shallow parents the Wormwoods, who dismiss her because she’s a girl. She finds solace in the library, enchanting the librarian Mrs Phelps with her talent for storytelling.

Matilda is enrolled in Crunchem Hall Primary School, where she impresses the kind teacher Miss Honey. However, Matilda earns the ire of the cruel headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Though she is small in stature, Matilda finds a power within her, galvanising the school in an uprising against the treacherous Trunchbull.

At the press call, the numbers “Naughty”, “When I Grow Up” and “Revolting Children” were performed for the media.

“This is exactly how I would expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to create a musical,” resident director Natalie Gilhome said. It’s her job to ensure the production stays true to the vision of original director Warchus. “It’s so intelligent, it’s so multi-layered so that adults get as much out of it as children get,” Gilhome enthused. “It’s so beautifully crafted as a piece that I think that’s a lot to do with the history of the RSC and the creatives that put it together.”

From left: Lilla Fleischman, Morgan Santo, Kitty Harris and Sofia Poston

This production, presented by BASE Entertainment and Lunchbox Theatrical, is the International Tour which was first staged in South Africa in October 2018. The title role is shared by four girls: Singaporean Sofia Poston and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo, and Kitty Harris, who are nine, 14, 11 and 10-years-old respectively.

Ryan de Villiers stars opposite the girls playing Matilda as Trunchbull, who lives to torment children and who focuses her resentment on the new star pupil. The role is typically played in drag, with taller, physically-imposing actors cast to emphasise the David-and-Goliath dynamic between Matilda and Trunchbull.

“I think it’s so much fun to play the bad guy,” de Villiers said. “I don’t think I’m the bad guy in real life, so getting to play someone who’s so opposite to who I am is so much fun.”

The character’s costume, which also includes a hunchback prosthetic, helps de Villiers get into Trunchbull’s headspace and plays up the character’s severity. “Everything is quite restrictive, not so that I can’t sing or speak, but it definitely helps with the physicality,” de Villiers explained.

Part of Trunchbull’s back-story is that she was an Olympic-level hammer thrower. She exhibits sheer physical strength, coupled with an unyielding demeanour. “Her uprightness and rigidity are very important to the character,” de Villiers said. “Posture-wise, she has really, really good posture, something I don’t always have. The way she walks is very calculated as well – everything about her is very calculated, until of course she loses it, then things go a little bit haywire,” de Villiers added with a smile.

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From left: Bethany Dickson (Miss Honey), Nompumelelo Mayiyane (Mrs Phelps) and Ryan de Villiers (Miss Trunchbull)

Thankfully, de Villiers does not agree with his character’s disciplinary methods. De Villiers stated that teachers should never resort to physical violence when dealing with their charges, adding “Even berating a child or speaking down at a child, it’s not good for their self-confidence and how they might end up in the future. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to find nice ways to deal with children.”

Trunchbull hates Matilda, but de Villiers has nothing admiration for his young co-stars. “They are all so professional, so wonderful, so talented, so it’s really inspiring to watch them onstage,” he enthused. De Villiers admitted that he does enjoying playing the ridiculous cruelty that Trunchbull enacts towards Matilda and the other students, saying “It really is a lot of fun on stage shouting at them and seeing their reactions.”

Musical director Louis Zurnamer was last in Singapore with the touring production of Evita. Describing the music of Matilda, Zurnamer said that unlike the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Minchin’s compositions are “almost deliciously devoid of very long lyrical melodic lines.” Zurnamer described the incidental music by orchestrator Chris Nightingale as “something like Amélie, like French film music.”

Zurnamer leads the eight-piece band which plays live in the orchestra pit during every performance. “We have a cello and a bass clarinet, instruments that bring a very specific colour to the show as well,” Zurnamer revealed, describing that colour as a darkness and maturity to the story, told from a child’s perspective. Speaking about how the music of Matilda stands out in the landscape of classic and contemporary musicals, Zurnamer said “It doesn’t sound like Jason Robert Brown or Stephen Schwartz, it’s a new language and it’s so divine. My toes curl with delight every time I hear it, it’s so lovely.”

If there’s one physical part of the set that gets a lot of attention, it’s the swings suspended from the ceiling. One of the major challenges in developing a touring version of Matilda was in engineering swings that would work the way the swings in the West End production do, but which can also easily be installed and removed in theatres.

The swings feature in the wistful number “When I Grow Up”. “It’s the one number where you get to see this beautiful fantasy,” Gilholme said, adding that “there’s a purity that sometimes we lose when we grow up, so it’s so nice to see that childlike perception of what life is as adults.”

“The swings are probably one of the most impressive parts of the show, and something that we take very seriously as we have kids on them and cast members flying out over the audience,” stage manager Peter Barnett said during our backstage tour. “We double-check and triple-check these and run them every single day,” he said, adding that there are hidden safety measures in the swing seats.

Audiences can enter the foreboding gates of Crunchem Hall and witness Matilda’s rousing struggle for justice when they watch Matilda the Musical, which runs from 21 February to 17 March at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/entertainment/shows/matilda-the-musical.html for more information and to purchase tickets.

Photos by Jedd Jong 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serenity review

SERENITY

Director: Steven Knight
Cast: Mathew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time: 1 h 46 mins
Opens: 21 February 2019
Rating: M18

           Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway reunite under extremely bizarre circumstances in this neo-noir thriller, which is already being called the worst film of 2019.

McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman on the idyllic Plymouth Island who takes tourists out to sea on his fishing boat, the Serenity. Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island, asking Baker to kill her current husband, the abusive Frank (Jason Clarke). The plan is to get Frank drunk during a fishing trip and throw him overboard. Baker is initially resistant to the plan, but eventually feels he owes it to his and Karen’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) to free Karen from Frank’s grip. A tale of murder, madness and vengeance unfolds in paradise as Baker soon finds himself in way over his head.

Within days of opening in the U.S., Serenity’s badness has become legendary: the movie was a box office bomb that marked the lowest openings in McConaughey and Hathaway’s careers. Distributor Aviron gave up on marketing the movie altogether, cancelling planned publicity events and talk show appearances for its stars.

Is Serenity as bad as everyone is saying? Short answer: it is. Writer-director Steven Knight set out to make a “sexy noir” thriller, and for the first hour or so of the movie, it comes across as awkward and slightly melodramatic but never offensively bad. Then, as things ramp up and the plot reaches a crescendo, the film builds to a baffling, staggering twist ending. It’s a twist that truly must be seen to be believed, the kind of reveal that nobody could have ever though was a good idea.

The movie feels like a hybrid of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and 90s erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct and The Colour of the Night. The film was shot in Mauritius and setting it on a remote island away from the madding crowd gives the movie an initial air of mystery, but everything is so over-the-top and ham-fisted that Serenity has no dramatic impact at all.

Matthew McConaughey may be an Oscar winner, having found redemption after years of floundering about in sub-par romantic comedies, but he still makes missteps in choosing his projects. As the tortured hero with a tragic past, McConaughey does a lot of yelling at the sky. There’s an extended skinny-dipping scene, which is perhaps the most worthwhile thing in the movie. The character is intended to be sympathetic but doesn’t come close to making audiences root for him.

Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post described Anne Hathaway’s performance as “kind of a live-action Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and we can’t come up with a better description than that. Everything is heightened and hard to believed, but Hathaway’s turn as a blonde femme fatale is the most heightened and hardest to believe part of Serenity.

Jason Clarke’s abusive husband character is just that, a one-dimensional villain. It looks like Clarke had fun playing him, but he has played despicable characters with more nuance to them and it’s just more interesting that way.

Diane Lane shows up as a woman whom Baker sleeps with for money. That’s about it as far as her character goes. Oh, Djimon Hounsou is in this movie too.

There’s a version of this movie which is a tongue-in-cheek stealth parody of erotic thriller conventions that might have worked, but this is just a failure on every level. There’s a novelty factor to two Oscar-winning movie stars headlining what promises to be a steamy thriller, but Serenity fizzles out in spectacular fashion. By the time the mind-boggling conclusion rolls around, the movie has done a slow-motion faceplant on the ground. It’s also a shame that Serenity tarnishes the good name of 2005’s Serenity, the movie continuation of Joss Whedon’s space western TV series Firefly.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Cold Pursuit movie review

COLD PURSUIT

Director : Hans Petter Moland
Cast : Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Julia Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi, Raoul Trujillo, Tom Jackson
Genre : Thriller/Crime/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 21 February 2019
Rating : M18

           When the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance was released, comparisons to Taken were immediately made. It’s only fitting that Liam Neeson star in the American remake of that movie.

Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman, a snowplough driver in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. The death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) leads to a rift between Nels and his wife Grace (Laura Dern). Nels grows suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, soon convinced it was murder. Nels embarks upon a bloody path of vengeance that will eventually lead him to drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels calls upon his brother Brock (William Forsythe), who has previously had dealings with underworld figures. Local cop Kim (Emmy Rossum) begins investigating a string of violent occurrences, as Nels unwittingly incites a war between Viking and rival drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson).

Cold Pursuit is directed by Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed In Order of Disappearance. This is a faithful remake that benefits from preserving the darkly comedic tone of the original. The film’s screenplay by Frank Baldwin also does a fine job of recontextualising the plot, substituting the rival Serbian gang from the Norwegian movie with a Native American one. There are also copious references to Colorado’s legalisation of marijuana and some the race-related humour is irreverent but not wildly offensive.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Liam Neeson star in gritty revenge thrillers, so the snowy ski resort setting and the tongue-in-cheek tone help to switch things up. Not all the jokes land and the humour is sometimes a little too broad, especially compared with the original, but there’s an admiral tonal consistency. The grim violence is leavened with humour, not entirely unlike how the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino would handle it. While the film’s dark devil-may-care attitude brings a degree of unpredictability to the proceedings, the standard crime movie dealings and double-crosses can be a touch tedious. While the movie isn’t boring, it feels awkwardly-paced at times.

It’s hard to discuss this movie without Liam Neeson’s comments during a promotional interview overshadowing it. Whatever your take on the actor’s shocking admission, it’s fair to say that a promotional interview for a revenge comedy wasn’t the right time or place for that to be aired, but as hurtful as it is to hear those comments, this reviewer also feels the resulting aftermath needs to be viewed in context and not blown out of proportion.

Putting that aside for the moment, Neeson is a great choice for the lead, since he embodies the ‘everyman badass’ type like few other actors can. The movie riffs on his Taken reputation – while it is a black comedy, Neeson plays his role largely straight. There is more than a whiff of ridiculousness to the notion of a snowplough driver-turned avenging angel and nemesis of the criminal underbelly, which the film leans into just enough.

Tom Bateman scowls and sneers his way through the role of drug lord Viking, going the right amount of over-the-top. The supporting characters in Viking’s gang are given tiny bits of personality, Domenick Lombardozzi’s Mustang being the most likeable. Nicholas Holmes is endearing as Viking’s son Ryan, who has the misfortune of having a criminal father.

Emmy Rossum’s detective character isn’t too interesting, and Laura Dern is almost completely wasted in what is almost a non-existent role. Raoul Trujillio is equal parts funny and intimidating – one of the film’s funniest moments is when Thorpe threatens a hotel receptionist with a devastating review on Yelp.

Tom Jackson lends gravitas to White Bull. One of the film’s best scenes has White Bull silently walk through a hotel gift shop selling Native American souvenirs that are really made in China, observing how his culture has been commodified for tourists. The film does tread on somewhat uncomfortable territory with its afore-mentioned racial humour, but it never feels mean-spirited.

Cold Pursuit benefits from a wicked sense of humour and Liam Neeson’s finely-calibrated performance. There’s novelty factor of a director remaking his own foreign-language film in English, like Michael Haneke did with Funny Games or Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge. Audiences who are expecting a non-stop action-oriented movie like some of Neeson’s other late-career efforts might be disappointed, but there will be an audience for this movie’s blend of stark violence and bitter wit.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1995: A Space Odyssey – Captain Marvel stars and directors in Singapore

By Jedd Jong

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2018 was a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivering the one-two punch of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp served as a palate cleanser that still teased 2019’s big event – Avengers: Endgame.

The MCU movie that immediately precedes Endgame is Captain Marvel, which introduces one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes to the cinematic canon. The post-credits stinger of Infinity War depicted Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) activating a pager and calling for Captain Marvel’s help before he demateralised alongside Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

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Captain Marvel will depict the first meeting between Fury and the titular hero. The movie takes place largely in 1995 and centres on Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who transforms into a super-powered intergalactic peacekeeper. When earth is threatened by the shape-shifting Skrull invaders, Captain Marvel returns to her home planet to fight them and to rediscover the past existence she has long forgotten.

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Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Gemma Chan and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were in Singapore to promote the movie at Marina Bay Sands. On the agenda was a press junket, interviews and a massive fan event in the evening.

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Boden and Fleck are the latest indie directors to move from the world of smaller-scale dramas and comedies onto the largest stage imaginable, the MCU. “When you saw Half Nelson, it was just obvious we would be doing a superhero movie next,” Fleck joked, referring to their breakout film starring Ryan Gosling. The duo is also known for directing Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, and for directing episodes of TV shows including Billions and The Affair.

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Boden has become the first woman to direct an MCU movie – the only other female director to have helmed a Marvel movie so far was Lexi Alexander, who made 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. “This is a movie I really wanted to be part of. This is a character that so many people care so much about,” Boden said, adding “it’s 2019 and I think that everybody here looks forward to the day that it’s not news-worthy that a woman is directing this type of movie.” Boden is in good company, with Patty Jenkins having directed Wonder Woman and directing its sequel, Cathy Yan helming Birds of Prey and Cate Shortland directing the upcoming Black Widow solo movie.

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Fleck recounted the process of pitching the movie to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “When we went in there to talk to Kevin and the team at Marvel, and Brie as well, we were on the same page to make this character as complex and messy and human as possible, funny and tough and also vulnerable at the same time,” Fleck recalled. “They were like ‘yeah, that’s the movie we want to make,’ and here we are.”

Speaking about the production support built into the MCU machine, Boden added “[Marvel] said ‘We know how to make the big explosions, we need people to focus on the stories and the characters.'”

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The film chronicles Carol Danvers’ transformation into Captain Marvel, and behind the scenes, Oscar winner Brie Larson also underwent a staggering transformation to play the role. She embraced the physical challenge of portraying one of the most powerful superheroes in existence, saying “There’s something about pushing yourself beyond the threshold of what’s comfortable and then going even further than that…it means sometimes that you end up on the floor crying, begging for it to stop.” Larson surmised that those moments of breakthrough in the midst of pushing oneself to the limit embodied the spirit of Carol Danvers.

The arduous training paid off: Larson can dead-lift an impressive 102 kg and pushed a jeep up a hill for 30 seconds. Larson became fond of sending co-star Samuel L. Jackson videos of her workout progress, “just to brag”.

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Larson found the process of learning and executing action sequences rewarding, because there was a level of satisfaction in completing the task. Compared with typical acting which is up to interpretation, Larson found working on fight scenes more clear-cut. “There’s a right and a wrong way to punch an alien and that’s how it goes,” she stated.

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Larson also spent time flying in actual fighter jets, going onto Nellis Air Force Base and meeting with U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the first female fighter squadron commander in the Air Force’s history.

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Costumes are an integral part of any comic book movie, and the costumes in Captain Marvel are no exception. Carol’s default costume is a red, blue and gold variation of the green Starforce uniform she wears at the beginning of the film. The costumes were designed by Sanja Milkovic Hays, whose credits include Star Trek Beyond and the recent Fast and Furious films. Larson described the costume as a “restrictive rubber suit,” comparing moving around in it to “treading water all day”. She described shooting an action sequence in which Carol hangs off the side of a train, saying “It wasn’t until we got there that it was like ‘oh, I can’t lift my arms.'”

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Larson has a particularly adorable co-star in the film: a cat named Goose, based on the character Chewie from the comics. The name ‘Goose’ is a nod to Top Gun. The cat may be more significant to the plot than it first appears, so much so that it got its own character poster. “We had four cats playing our lead cat Goose,” Boden said. “Reggie is really the face, the star, the heart and the soul of the character.” Reggie shared the role with Archie, Rizzo and Gonzo. Orders came from on high to increase the cat’s screen time: Boden related that “very early on in the development process, Kevin Feige looked at one of our outlines and said ‘we need 100% more of that cat in there.’ And he got it and so did you!”

Here’s the video of me asking about the cat.

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The very slightly less adorable Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to the MCU. In this movie, he plays a younger version of Nick Fury with the help of de-aging technology, previously used on actors including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell and Robert Downey Jr. in other MCU movies. This is a Fury before he lost sight in one eye and before he became the director of spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of putting on a prosthetic scar and eyepatch like he normally would, Jackson wore motion capture dots on his face, so his expressions could be transferred to a more youthful visage.

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“Along with having two eyes, I have a lot less instinct than older Nick Fury has,” Jackson reflected. “I learn a lot from [Carol] over the course of the film and it helps a lot.” Jackson glanced at Larson, before exclaiming “She’s my first alien!”

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One of the members of Carol’s Starforce team is Minn-erva, played by Gemma Chan. Chan was recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians and is also known for her role in the sci-fi TV series Humans. Minn-erva is a deadly sniper with a penchant for sarcastic asides and a bit of a mean streak. “She’s pretty badass,” Chan said. “She’s not so nice, she’s got a bit of an edge, and there’s definitely a physical challenge as well.”

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Part of that physical challenge was in trying not to get bested by her own props. “The main thing during Captain Marvel that I had to be concerned about was trying not to hit myself in my face with my own rifle. The one that I practised with was a bit shorter than the one I used in the film, so I had to adjust for that,” Chan said to laughter.

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When asked who she might want to team up with in a future Marvel film, Larson mentioned Ms. Marvel. The current Ms. Marvel in the comics is Kamala Khan, a young Muslim woman hailed as a positive role model. Feige has cryptically said that he “has plans” for her inclusion in the MCU, so Larson might get her wish yet.

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One journalist bravely attempted to broach the topic of Captain Marvel’s role in fighting Thanos in Endgame. “That is a really great question that I absolutely cannot answer, but more power to you for asking and very good try,” Larson said.

Someone had to give it a go.

 

 

 

 

When Ghost Meets Zombie (女鬼爱上尸) review

WHEN GHOST MEETS ZOMBIE  (女鬼爱上尸)

Director : Han Yew Kwang
Cast : Nathan Hartono, Ferlyn G, Jesseca Liu, Jeremy Chan, Fann Wong, Gurmit Singh, Andie Chen, Kate Pang, Suhaimi Yusof
Genre : Romance/Comedy/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 14 February 2019
Rating : PG13

Romantic zombie comedies are a niche subgenre, but those movies have their fans. From My Boyfriend’s Back to Warm Bodies to Burying the Ex, there’s often a cult film quality to these oddball horror romantic comedy hybrids. Throwing its hat (or disembodied limb) in the ring is When Ghost Meets Zombie.

Zhen Zhen (Ferlyn G) is a beauty pageant contestant who can be characterised as an ‘ah lian’, roughly analogous to the Essex Girl stereotype from the UK. She’s brasher and not as refined as her fellow competitors, but she refuses to compromise who she is. Zhen Zhen and the other contestants travel to Rainbow Village in Thailand for a photoshoot. Local legend has it that a group of heroic young men sacrificed themselves to save the village from an impending flood some 50 years ago, propping up a wall as everyone else got to safety. Pong (Nathan Hartono) was the leader of this group. These young men did not die but were turned into zombies by a priest.

When an accident in the village leads to Zhen Zhen’s death, her spirit inadvertently possesses Pong’s undead body. If Zhen Zhen doesn’t fulfil her heart’s desire in 49 days, she will vanish into nothingness forever. Zhen Zhen finds her way back to Singapore and discovers there’s still a way for her to fulfil her dream of winning a beauty pageant. With the help of her best friend Bai Bai (Jesseca Liu), a mortuary cosmetologist, Pong enters a male beauty pageant. Zhen Zhen’s mother Meng Na (Fann Wong) is still grappling with the death of her daughter, and Zhen Zhen’s spirit in Pong’s body must convince Meng Na that her daughter’s presence remains in this realm.

When Ghost Meets Zombie is the first feature film from WaWa Pictures, a prolific local production company known for Chinese-language TV series like Secrets for Sale, The Oath, Game Plan and Crescendo. Han Yew Kwang, who also helmed the 2015 sex comedy Rubbers, directs from a screenplay by the WaWa team. The result is a mish-mash of disparate elements which doesn’t gel. There’s a faint glimmer of something appealing buried beneath lots of stuff that just doesn’t work.

The plot is needlessly convoluted, with plenty of rules needing to be established. The supernatural mechanics of a ghost possessing a zombie are over-explained and yet still make no sense. What little underlying logic there is seems simultaneously overthought and undercooked.

There is an unsettling nature to the occult aspects of the story which the filmmakers attempt to smooth over with comedy, to very mixed results. Gurmit Singh’s Taoist priest character constantly cuts himself and even chops off his own fingers – this is somehow inherently comedic. Elsewhere, another character gets a face full of ashes after an urn containing the remains of their relative is smashed on the floor. The film doesn’t have the wicked wit needed to make the requisite dark humour work and has this bright sitcom artificiality to it which is incompatible with the more macabre elements of the story.

In addition to the various story and character problems brought about by the specific subject matter, the usual issues that plague locally-made Chinese-language comedy movies are present here. There are scores of cameos from TV personalities in lieu of jokes, and Jack Neo shows up to name-check films he’s directed in a cringe-inducing scene. The product placement from brands like massage chair maker Ogawa, beauty spa New York Skin Solutions and restaurant group Tung Lok is omnipresent and obtrusive. Then there’s the tonal whiplash, with sentimentality added to the nauseating mix of horror and comedy.

Nathan Hartono is a likeable, charming performer, and the film gets plenty of mileage out of his swoon-worthy physique. However, one can’t help but feel sympathy well up watching him get subjected to myriad indignities. As a zombie, he has almost no actual lines. He proves sufficiently adept at physical comedy and there is an attempt at developing a back-story for Pong, but it’s clear that this isn’t the best use of Hartono’s talents.

The thing is, a romantic pairing between Nathan Hartono and Ferlyn G is not the worst idea – Ferlyn’s brash persona and Hartono’s typically suave demeanour would have made for a good odd couple pairing. It’s just that the filmmakers constantly set up obstacles in their own way. This is a romance between a disembodied spirit and an undead creature, so no amount of chemistry can compensate for the logistic and metaphysical problems that arise. The sappy guitar-driven duet performed by Hartono and Ferlyn is pleasant but is a poor fit for this movie.

The supporting performers do the best with what they’re given – the romantic subplot between Jesseca Liu’s Bai Bai and Jeremy Chan’s Lai Lai could have been worthwhile if it weren’t so underdeveloped and fuelled by clichés. Fann Wong’s performance as a grieving mother is surprisingly affecting, but feels out of place in a madcap comedy, yet another sign of the film’s tonal inconsistency.

Gurmit Singh’s priest character, the de-facto villain, is altogether off-putting. The character is ostensibly comedic but is also meant to be menacing, and Singh just seems miscast.

When Ghost Meets Zombie tries something crazy and fails at it, but the filmmakers deserve credit for trying. It’s hard to determine what anyone really was going for and everything could stand to be a lot more streamlined, but it has Hartono in the lead role going for it. It’s perhaps in trying to appeal to fans of Channel 8 comedies and dramas while also trying to incorporate horror comedy elements into the story that When Ghost Meets Zombie falls apart.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The LEGO® Movie 2 review

THE LEGO MOVIE 2

Director : Mike Mitchell
Cast : Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Richard Ayoade, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklyn Prince, Noel Fielding
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 7 February 2019
Rating : PG

It’s been five years since The LEGO® Movie was released, defying expectations by being a movie made to sell toys that was about so much more than just selling toys. In the meantime, the spin-offs The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie have graced the big screens, but The LEGO Movie 2 has plenty to live up to.

The LEGO Movie ended with Bricksburg being invaded by aliens from the Systar System. Five years later, Bricksburg has become ravaged by repeated alien invasions, and is now the wasteland Apocalypseburg. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is still his cheery self, while the other denizens of Apocalypseburg, including Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) have become hardened road warriors.

The latest invasion is led by General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who captures Lucy, Batman, Unikitty, Metalbeard and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy (Charlie Day). Mayhem takes them back to the shape-shifting alien queen of the Systar System, Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmet travels to outer space to save his friends, and along the way meets Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a super-cool spacefaring explorer and crime-fighter who is everything Emmet has ever wanted to be. Lucy suspects that Watevra harbours malice, thinking she has brainwashed the others, but there’s more to this conflict than first appears.

The LEGO Movie was a beautifully-made animated film that explored surprisingly sophisticated ideas, benefitting from the gleeful but good-hearted anarchy that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring to their projects. The duo remains onboard as screenwriters for the sequel but pass the director’s chair on to Mike Mitchell. The LEGO Movie 2 is an excellent continuation of the first movie’s plot, delivering a different message from the first film but one that’s also clever and slyly subversive.

The first film ended with the revelation that there was a human world beyond the LEGO world and that the film’s story sprung from the imagination of a young boy named Finn (Jadon Sand). Finn’s sister Bianca (Brooklyn Prince) wants to play with him, with her contribution to Finn’s story represented as an alien invasion. This metatextual knowledge informs the audiences’ interpretation of the story, which comments on gendered toys. Toys are generally marketed to boys one way and to girls another way, and there’s a perception that boys and girls play with toys in different ways.

The LEGO Movie 2 also deals with growing up, taking advantage of the five-year gap between films. The desire to be perceived as tough, cool and well, grown-up is reflected in Emmet’s awe at his newfound ally Rex. Emmet’s cheerful optimism is often taken as naivete; he wishes that he could be tougher and cooler because he thinks that’s what Lucy wants of him. The movie comments on masculinity in an astute way – there are some parallels between Emmet and Hiccup, the protagonist of the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, in that both are not traditionally badass heroes. The LEGO Movie 2 addresses why it’s important that Emmet retains the essence of who he is.

Just like in the first film, there’s the sense of imagination running amok without the movie feeling like a mess. There’s a straightforward narrative trajectory and a twist or two towards the end, but there’s a joke every other minute and the film constantly feels alive. The innumerable pop culture references feel organic rather than mechanically slotted in. The animation by Animal Logic is just as dynamic and eye-catching as in the previous LEGO movies. The photo-realistic CGI animation creates the illusion of stop-motion animation and makes each LEGO brick and element feel tactile.

The returning cast is a joy to hear. From Alison Brie’s mix of innocence and rage as Unikitty to Charlie Day’s unbridled, single-minded enthusiasm as Benny, these are eminently loveable characters. Pratt shines in a dual role, with Rex Dangervest riffing on other Pratt roles including Star-Lord from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Owen Grady from the Jurassic World movies and Joshua Faraday from the Magnificent Seven remake (with a possible nod towards Cowboy Ninja Viking, still in development).

Lucy’s character is shaded in a little more, with the indication that her cool, rebellious exterior is an affectation. Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman as a self-obsessed loner continues to be amusing, with Batman’s own complex figuring heavily into the plot of this film.

Tiffany Haddish is a hot commodity in the movie business after the success of Girls Trip, lending plenty of personality to Watevra, a mercurial force of nature. Stephanie Beatriz voicing a LEGO character is especially rich because she got her signature eyebrow scar from tripping on a LEGO brick at age 10.

The LEGO Movie 2 hits the sweet spot of being a family film that isn’t condescending to kids and isn’t pandering to adults. There’s something for everybody, and it doesn’t feel forced. There’s surprising poignancy to the message at its heart, but it’s also consistently funny and lively. Because it’s a sequel, it doesn’t have the explosive freshness of the first film, but it’s a satisfying and intelligent follow-up that has plenty to offer.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alita: Battle Angel review

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Director : Robert Rodriguez
Cast : Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza González, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor
Genre : Science Fiction/Action
Run Time : 2 h 2 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

           James Cameron has long spoken of adapting Yukito Kushiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita aka Gunnm to the big screen. After developing the project through the 90s and 2000s, he turned his attention to the Avatar movies, passing the directorial baton to Robert Rodriguez. This is the result.

It is the year 2563. Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a kindly scientist living in the post-apocalyptic Iron City, comes across a discarded robot core in a trash heap. He attaches the core to an artificial body he has built, reviving the cyborg girl. Ido dubs her ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar). Alita has no memory of her previous life and adjusts to her newfound existence in Ido’s care. She meets and falls for Hugo (Keean Johnson), who introduces her to the sport of motorball. Alita aspires to enter a professional motorball tournament, but Ido tries to dissuade her because it’s a lethal sport.

Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s ex-wife, is now working with the shady and powerful Vector (Mahershala Ali), who has made his fortune in motorball. Vector sets his sights on Alita, sending cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters including Zapan (Ed Skrein), Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Nyssiana (Eiza González) after her. Alita gradually recalls her past as a soldier in a catastrophic war 300 years ago, reconciling this past with her current existence as powerful forces pursue her.

Alita: Battle Angel might have Cameron on board as producer and co-writer to lend it pedigree, it winds up a disappointment. The film boasts some good cyberpunk design elements and eye-catching visual effects from vendor WETA, but the familiar story structure and character types make it seem like something that has sat on a shelf for 20 years. Cyberpunk is very much an 80s-90s concept – while there still are creative and compelling cyberpunk works, we’ve already begun looking on cyberpunk futures the way we look at The Jetsons-style 50s futurism.

          Alita plays the young adult novel-style ‘chosen girl’ trope painfully straight and falls back on tried and tested sci-fi movie conventions. There’s a floating metropolis where the elites live, while everyone else leads a hardscrabble existence in a post-apocalyptic city. Bionic bounty hunters roam the streets as militaristic drones keep order. With its light body horror, the film sometimes approaches the off-kilter twistedness of the source material but is never brave enough to embrace it. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and a sense of going through the motions pervades Alita. There’s a dynamism to the action sequences but a limpness to everything else.

“I’m starting to feel like I wasn’t very important,” Alita sighs to Hugo. “Just an insignificant girl thrown out with the rest of the garbage.” Naturally, Alita winds up being the most significant girl. The character is portrayed via performance capture by Rosa Salazar. Alita’s enlarged anime-esque eyes deliberately contribute to an uncanny valley quality, reminding the viewer that she’s different from everyone else. The character is a blend of giggly innocence and formidable combat prowess, with Salazar switching fluidly between the modes. Salazar’s performance is one of the most worthwhile aspects of the film.

It’s always nice to see Christoph Waltz in a non-creepy role, and as Dr Ido, he is a serviceably likeable Gepetto-esque figure. There just isn’t enough depth in the material for the relationship between Ido and Alita for audiences to care very much about it.

Jennifer Connelly is mostly flat as a character who could’ve been interesting because of her conflicted nature. Fellow Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is wasted as a generic villain who pulls the strings behind the scenes. There is a surprise element to the Vector character that differentiates him from other similar villains, but it just isn’t enough to make him memorable.

Keean Johnson makes for a boring love interest. Much of the film’s cheesiness is derived from its romantic subplot, which becomes a driving force for Alita. We don’t know what Alita sees in Hugo. Even given some moral ambiguity, Hugo is patently dull. It sounds mean, but the best way to describe the character is ‘lame’. There’s nothing passionate or transporting about the romance, which feels like it belongs in an early-2000s Disney Channel Original Movie.

The various cyborg ‘hunter warriors’ Alita must fight are various shades or cartoony and while they might approach menacing, never seem like a legitimate threat. This is in part because of how Alita seems to be physically stronger and faster than anyone she faces.

Alita: Battle Angel isn’t a complete loss: Rosa Salazar gives it her all, and the realisation of the ‘Panzer Kunst’ fighting style and the kinetic motorball sequences are exciting and entertaining to watch. The film was shot in native 3D and looks great in that format. It’s just a shame that this is a largely flavourless version of this story, saddled with awkward dialogue and melodrama.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Killer Not Stupid (杀手不笨) review

KILLER NOT STUPID (杀手不笨)

Director : Jack Neo
Cast : Jay Shih, Nadow, Amber An, Apple Chan, Gadrick Chin, Lin Mei-Hsiu, Ricky Davao
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

After including hints of action in the Ah Boys to Men series, Jack Neo leaps into the action-comedy genre with Killer Not Stupid. Do his broad comedic sensibilities jibe with the world of international terrorism and high-stakes intrigue? We’ll get to that in a bit.

The film centres on Hornet (Jay Shih), an elite assassin who wants out of the game. Hornet is assisted by his trusty tech guy Mark (Nadow), and they’re undertaking the proverbial ‘one last job’. Hornet and Mark must acquire a valuable flash drive dubbed ‘100K’, which contains comprising material on the world’s terrorist rings. Naturally, rival forces, including the triad leader ‘Grandma’ (Ryan Lian), are also after the drive.

Along the way, Hornet and Mark meet Sha Bao (Gadrick Chin), Mark’s former classmate from Malaysia. All three have coincidentally booked into the same hotel as Talia (Amber An), the ditzy daughter of a slain Filipino drug lord. Talia is being escorted by the no-nonsense agent Ira (Apple Chan), who soon grows sick of Sha Bao’s antics. Now that Hornet wants to quit, Mother (Lin Mei-Hsiu), his former boss, puts a hit out on him. The international criminal Adolf (Ricky Davao) is hellbent on acquiring the 100K drive, meaning Hornet is pursued on all sides on his last job.

This appears to be the result of the Ah Boys to Men films doing well in Taiwan, leading to Taiwanese investors bankrolling Neo to make a movie in Taiwan with Taiwanese stars. Killer Not Stupid is completely unrelated to I Not Stupid and its sequels. It’s a shame that Neo chose to remind audiences of that film, which remains among his best. While I Not Stupid was broadly comedic and wasn’t especially deft in its handling of suicide, it was an incisive, resonant and moving piece of satire. Killer Not Stupid is, by contrast, a spectacular failure that is almost physically painful to watch. It’s not easy to make a film this bad, such that at some point it must have been a deliberate choice to handle everything in the worst way possible.

Action-comedies are a bit of a tricky genre in that if one isn’t careful, the comedy can undermine the stakes. This is exactly what happens with Killer Not Stupid. The unfunny gags, pratfalls and lame wordplay prevent the audience from taking any part of the international terror plot seriously. The film falls back on the tired device of the heroes disguising themselves in unconvincing drag. Every joke is accompanied by cartoony sound effects, including at least two uses of the sad trombone noise. If a joke is funny, it doesn’t need sound effects, freeze frames, superimposed graphics, or sped-up footage to tell audiences to laugh. Within seconds of that, characters get shot in the head.

The most basic demonstration of stakes in action-comedies is the classic scene of Jackie Chan fighting a bad guy while he balances a priceless vase. In that moment, the stakes are that Jackie could drop and break the vase. Neo doesn’t understand this principle. It’s a pity because there clearly were talented stunt performers and riggers and competent special effects foremen involved at some point. The resources that Neo has at his disposal have engendered a self-indulgence, when other directors could have created something worthwhile with the same resources. That said, parts of the movie still feel very cheap: the MacGuffin is one of those ‘cryptex’ flash drives that you get as a corporate gift.

Mandopop duo Awaking’s Jay Shih is a passable leading man. He’s the most tolerable part of the movie because he’s one of the very few characters who isn’t mugging for the camera like a clown on cocaine. He also acquits himself well in the action scenes.

Nadow’s Mark is the standard comic relief tech guy. Most action movies have one character of this type. As annoying as Mark is, there are several other characters in the film who way outstrip him in terms of how grating they are.

Gadrick Chin’s Sha Bao has the ridiculous gimmick of being obsessed with 70s Hong Kong movies, imagining himself to be the second coming of Qin Han and Bruce Lee. None of it is funny. Amber An plays up the spoilt princess stock type to an unbearable degree.

Lin Mei-Hsiu’s character Mother is just about the worst in the film, because as Hornet’s former employer who is now out to kill him, we should be intimidated by the character so we can fear for the protagonist. Instead, the character is maximally silly.

The villain is named ‘Adolf’, in case viewers weren’t clear he’s supposed to be the villain. Jack Neo is nothing if not a master of subtlety.

“The comedy that people like will be there and comedy is what I’m good at,” Neo declared at the press conference announcing Killer Not Stupid. This reviewer acknowledges that perhaps he isn’t the target audience for the film, but it is mildly unsettling at best, horrifying at worst that anyone could find this funny. We’ve always hoped for Singaporean filmmakers to create more action films, so it’s disheartening but not surprising that Neo gets to try his hand at this genre and completely fumbles it.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong