Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Deadpool 2 review

For inSing

DEADPOOL 2

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, Stefan Kapičić, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni
Genre : Action / Adventure
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 17 May 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence & Coarse Language)

The Merc with the Mouth is back and mouthier than ever, and he’s brought along friends.

Maybe “friends” is too strong a word.

Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the wise-cracking, nigh-indestructible killer for hire, is settling down with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), in between a busy schedule of hit jobs around the world. Wade has his already topsy-turvy life turned further upside down by the arrival of an unexpected guest. Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a grizzled cyborg from the future has travelled to the present with a mission. His target: Russell “Rusty” Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young mutant who will grow up into a murderous tyrant if his impulses are left unchecked. Rusty has been raised in an orphanage where he and the other mutant orphans have been abused by the principal and orderlies.

Deadpool realises he’ll need the help of allies old and new, including former roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), bartender and pal Weasel (T.J. Miller), taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), the metal-skinned Piotr Rasputin/Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), who is still trying to recruit Deadpool to join the X-Men, and Neena Thurman/Domino (Zazie Beetz), a mutant with the power of preternaturally good luck. Wade also tries assembling his own mutant superhero team called the ‘X-Force’, to mixed results.

The first Deadpool film faced an uphill battle in getting made and proved to be wildly successful among critics and audiences. That film faced countless behind-the-scenes bureaucratic issues stemming from the Fox top brass and had to work around the resulting budget cuts, but Reynolds’ pet project finally came to fruition.

Deadpool 2 faces a similar situation as Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 – the underdog has triumphed, resources are being thrown at the sequel, and now’s the time to prove there are more tricks up the filmmakers’ sleeves. There’s also a deeper dive into the source material, with long-anticipated characters making their big screen debuts.

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are back for the sequel, with Reynolds credited as the third writer. The first film’s director Tim Miller has been replaced by David Leitch, veteran stunt coordinator and one half of the John Wick directing team.

Deadpool 2 gets a lot right, and is a movie that’s comfortable in its mottled, sore-covered skin. Many of the self-referential jokes are brilliant, the action sequences are more elaborate and involved, the casting for new characters is excellent, and Reynolds settles further into what has become his signature role. However, all this doesn’t quite fit together as well as it should have. There are times when the editing feels choppy, and characters enter the plot inorganically, coming off more as plot devices than actually developed characters.

The irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie is a double-edged sword. There are plenty of funny comic book movies, yes, but none that so freely and frequently take shots at other, specific films. It’s intrinsic to the Deadpool character, but the barrage of snarky quips can wear viewers down. It’s also a little tricky to decide when the film is trying to be genuine and when it’s trying to be ironic, the side effect being that any moments that are potentially emotional get robbed of their effect. Deadpool’s motivation in this film is one that’s been seen a lot and nullifies the emotional drive of the first film.

Beneath the violence, swearing and fourth wall-breaking humour, the first Deadpool film had a very traditional origin story structure. Deadpool 2 almost doesn’t have enough of a structure, which some might argue suits the character. However, when the jokes take precedence over the story, the stakes are blunted and everything feels inconsequential. While the humour in the Guardians of the Galaxy films sometimes stepped on the emotional beats, those movies did a slightly better job in juggling the jokes and the heartfelt moments than Deadpool 2 does.

Brolin is an ideal Cable, and yes, we do get a line about how he doesn’t quite match the stature of the character in the comics. Brolin is shredded and plays a great straight man to Reynolds. Beetz has the kick-ass attitude that’s key to Domino, and after seeing her performance, it doesn’t matter the character doesn’t look like she’s usually drawn. The film is dedicated in memory of Sequana Harris, the Domino stunt double who died in an accident on set.

Leitch is no stranger to large-scale action set pieces and the central prison truck chase is staged with energy and finesse. A lot of the close-quarters combat looks great and the canvas has been increased from the first film. However, one character who is completely rendered in CGI looks incredibly awkward and difficult to buy as occupying the same space as the other characters.

Deadpool 2 strains to subvert expectations and deliver more of what everyone came for but suffers from a lack of focus. It’s all one big joke, as it should be, and on that level, Deadpool 2 is entertaining. It’s calibrated to reward fans who’ll catch all the references and whisper in their friends’ ears “Rob Liefeld, the artist who co-created Deadpool, is terrible at drawing feet”. However, as much as the movie wants to be shocking, the films winds up being pretty lightweight, enjoyable without making as much of an impact as it could have.

The mid-credits scene is an absolute hoot, but perhaps jokes about a certain entry in Reynolds’ filmography are wearing a little thin by now.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Infinity War review

For inSing

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directors : Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 29m
Opens : 25 April 2018
Rating : PG13

We’re going to do things a little differently.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, you’ve been told to avoid spoilers like the plague, and yet, we want you to read this review, which will be spoiler-free.

This will be a review, and yet not a review. We’re hoping that you’ll read this, but if you don’t wanna, that’s fine.

We’ll say it up front: this is a particularly tricky movie to write a spoiler-free review of, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve given anything.

Marvel has hyped Avengers: Infinity War as the most ambitious crossover event staged in entertainment media. They’re not wrong. No matter which way you look at this movie, it’s tricky to put together. It’s a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War under the Russo brothers’ belts, there are still many times during Infinity War when one is wont to wonder aloud “how did the guys from Arrested Development and Community get here?” This is a film with a sprawling scope, even for a genre which is all about scope. The Russo brothers, with the in-built support at Marvel Studios, do a commendable job of wrangling it all.

This reviewer would love to have been a fly on the wall while the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hammering this out. Imagine all the iterations, all the bits and pieces that maybe didn’t quite work, before we got here.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A studio hasn’t quite been able to announce to the audience “right, you should’ve seen all 18 of these movies, or at least most of them, before you watch this. Off you go, then.” Not even long-running franchises like the Bond movies, Star Wars, or Harry Potter can really demand that, and know that most audiences would have fulfilled that demand. There’s a swaggering confidence about Infinity War, and yet it’s not off-putting or self-congratulatory. If anything, Marvel Studios is deliberately making things really difficult for themselves going forward.

Over the years, the MCU has garnered its fair share of detractors. There are purists, there are ardent fanboys who have fixated on one niggling aspect or another that dissatisfied them, there are those who loyally back the other team (this reviewer has been accused of being both paid off by Disney and being biased towards DC movies), there are those who say it’s all too funny and nothing is taken seriously enough. Depending on the context, some aspects of these criticisms are valid, but it’s important to take a step back and consider all the myriad hurdles that the people making these films have cleared to get here.

At the core of Infinity War is a MacGuffin hunt that has spanned multiple movies, with so much being set up in previous instalments, leading up to this. The film takes inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc in 1991, written by Jim Starlin, and the 2013 Infinity crossover event, written by Jonathan Hickman. Infinity War is the culmination of intergalactic warlord and ‘mad titan’ Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) search for the Infinity Stones. We’ve seen five of the six stones in previous movies, and he’s looking to collect them all.

This is a quest that has attendant consequences and sacrifice, and from the beautifully staged, dramatic and grave opening scene onwards, viewers have a good idea of what to expect. There are plenty of jokes, but unlike in previous MCU movies, this reviewer felt less of a sense that said jokes were stepping on the dramatic beats.

This reviewer wasn’t the biggest fan of Civil War, because there was noticeable bloat and the central conflict didn’t really get enough room to breathe. Weirdly enough, that seems like less of a problem here. Clocking in at 149 minutes and costing an estimated $300-400 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that Infinity War would be more bloated than a beached whale, but it moves with great finesse.

Infinity War could easily have come off as a string of unrelated set-pieces. It’s evident that this was not constructed by devising the set-pieces first, with the plot being filled in around those. Our massive ensemble is handily organised into groups, with said groups meeting and then diverging as the story progresses. The groups all make sense, and there is considerable time dedicated to reinforcing and evolving existing relationships.

The romance between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) elicited the most emotion out of this reviewer. The Guardians of the Galaxy team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and we delve a little deeper into the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged adoptive father Thanos.

It seems like Markus and McFeely really enjoyed writing the Guardians, nailing the voices of each character. There’s a consistency which feels organic and yet must’ve been challenging to achieve. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads and egos, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) faces more struggles in getting control of his alter ego, the Hulk. A good portion of the film is set in Wakanda, which in Black Panther, has just opened itself to the outside world, its people getting more than they bargained for here.

It wasn’t really that long ago when we thought we’d never see Peter Parker in the MCU, so it’s a genuine thrill to see Holland’s Spider-Man interact with so many characters and feel like he was always meant to be in this line-up.

Thanos feels like an actual character rather than just an obstacle our heroes must overcome. We get just enough back-story and there is respectable gravity to the proceedings. There’s a lot of fantastic acting on display from everyone involved. This is not a movie in which the spectacle does all the legwork.

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering work of virtuosic audacity. Its filmmakers play the audience like a fiddle. The ending is either a howl-inducing gut punch or sheer genius – maybe both at once. You’re probably going to be frustrated at some point or another, but there will be gasps, there will be cheers, there will be laughter, and depending on how fragile the audience at your screening is, there might be open sobbing.

Given the nigh-insane parameters the filmmakers were working within, Avengers: Infinity War is the best movie it could’ve been.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Resilience Under Fire: Miles Teller Interview for Only the Brave

For inSing

RESILIENCE UNDER FIRE: MILES TELLER TALKS ONLY THE BRAVE 

The actor tells inSing about making the fact-based firefighting drama

By Jedd Jong

Only the Brave tells the harrowing true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of firefighters within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. In June 2013, the Hotshots battled the fearsome Yarnell Hill fire, resulting in a staggering loss of life. When then-Vice President Joe Biden attended the memorial service for the firefighters killed in the incident, he said “all men are created equal. But then, a few became firefighters.”

In the film, Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now, War Dogs) plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a young ne’er-do-well slacker who decides to pull his life together and become a firefighter after his ex-girlfriend gives birth to their daughter. The film also stars Josh Brolin as the team’s leader Eric “Supe” Marsh, Jeff Bridges as Eric’s mentor Duane Steinbrink, and Jennifer Connelly as Eric’s wife Amanda. James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze and Ben Hardy are among the actors who play fellow firefighters. Joseph Kosinki (Tron Legacy, Oblivion) directs from a screenplay by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down, Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International).

Teller spoke exclusively to inSing over the phone from Los Angeles about making the film. He discussed meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough, working with Josh Brolin, the physical preparation he undertook to play the role and working with the stunt team to film the realistic firefighting scenes.

INSING: The character you play, Brendan McDonough, starts out as irresponsible and aimless and embarks on a journey towards heroism. Tell us more about that journey.

MILES TELLER: Brendan, he was a little, I guess ‘aimless’ is a good word. I think he was lacking some kind of mentorship or some kind of guidance, something that at that age is really helpful in terms of helping you to become the person you’ll become later. I think at that age; a lot of people are battling with immaturity and irresponsibility. Brendan, he was into drugs and committing some small crimes. He ends up going to jail, and when he goes back home, his mum throws him out of the house. That was an ultimatum. For him, he realised it’s time to stop being so selfish and get his life together. That’s when he decided to try out for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and he met Eric Marsh, who became such a strong fatherly figure for him, up until the day of the tragedy.

Leading on from that, I think that after enduring JK Simmons yelling at you, nothing would faze you, but was it intimidating having someone like Josh Brolin play your boss?

No, it’s actually kind of the opposite of intimidating. I was really grateful, and I think we all benefitted from Josh’s leadership on the film. He got rid of any kind of divide or any kind of ego that could’ve been there, just because he’s done 50 movies and there were certain guys on the movie that it was their very first film. He was the best, man. He was having guys come to his house to work out and his trailer door was always open. He was really such a leader, not even just in the physical portion of the film. He would always be the first guy in the line, whether we were doing running, racing, cardio workouts. He’s in great shape and we really benefitted in the cast by having Josh as #1 on the call sheet.

What about the story of Brendan McDonough and of the Granite Mountain Hotshots resonated with you the most?

I have so much respect for anybody who’s in the position to be a first responder. The town that these guys came from, kind of a Southwest small town, I grew up in the south in a pretty small town. Especially after going to their hometown, I felt like I would’ve been friends with those guys, those were my kind of guys. Then obviously the tragedy that happened, and to get the opportunity to put a story like that of real-life heroism on screen and to do the story justice and celebrate their lives, then you’re lucky, because not every story has that kind of integrity to it.

With Brendan, I like any character who goes on a journey, a big arc or any character who goes through a big transition. And Brendan, starting out on the drugs and committing crimes to where he ends up being such a high-contributing member of society, that was interesting to me.

What was it like meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough?

I flew down to Prescott, Arizona, where the story takes place. I met Brendan, and it was uh, I’ve played a few real-life people at this point, and the first interaction is always…I was going down there basically to show face, and to show him that I was taking this very seriously. I just kind of allowed him to talk, and say what he wanted to say, and get any weird feelings about making a movie about his life out of the way, and then after that, we just hung out. We just got along and hung out for a couple of days. Apart of the work, it was fun, but it was also beneficial in playing the character.

What was it like working with director Joseph Kosinski?

Joe was great. Joe is everything that you want in a director: he’s extremely prepared, he’s extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and he absolutely wanted to maintain the integrity for these guys, he wanted the authenticity to play. That’s something that, for a movie of this budget, you don’t always get that. He was our captain on this thing, and he was also open-minded. He was open to ideas from the guys as to what they wanted to do with the character, and he’s a master behind the camera, but also in front of, in terms of talking with the actors. I couldn’t have asked for a better director.

In meeting with real-life currently active Hotshots and firefighters, what was the most surprising thing that struck you about these guys?

The actual people, like not too much. The work that they do is extremely tough. It is difficult. I have no idea what these guys go through to be able to fight these wildfires. I guess what surprised me about the guys is that they’re guys, they’re Hotshots and you feel “I’m sure I could lift more weights”, but the work they’re doing is extremely tough. And the guys that make it through, some of them surprise you because on the surface they don’t look like it, but really it’s an inner courage and strength that these guys have, that keeps them going week after week, month after month during fire season.

How does the physical work you had to do for this film compare to the preparation for a movie like Bleed for This?

It was different. For this one, we have like a two-week boot camp, where everybody got their butts kicked and got into shape. It’s a lot of physical labour, whereas boxing is such a different kind of training. Boxers are training to go 12 three-minute rounds in a fight, whereas these guys it’s more cardio, endurance, longevity. So the training was a little different, but both are tough.

What was the camaraderie like between the crew when you were training and filming, and out of all your castmates, who do you think you bonded with the strongest?

We had a great camaraderie, and I think it was very smart of the producers and the director to have that be the first introduction to everybody. To me, that brought us closer than any kind of rehearsing the scenes would have done, because you’re all links in a chain. When you’re doing these workouts, it’s not about the individual at all, it’s all about the group. I felt that was a really smart way to get everybody all in. They brought in some real Hotshots to do the training so we knew it was authentic, and everybody just bonded from the beginning.

It wasn’t necessarily one individual. We all got close. There were 20 guys including Brolin, and we were all hanging out. We were in Santa Fe, fairly small town, and we were all just hanging out.

With any film that’s based on a real-life disaster, there’s a balance between how respectful the film has to be while delivering the spectacle it has to, without being exploitative. How do you feel Only the Brave pulls that balance off?

It’s tough, because I don’t know how many people who are going to see the movie necessarily know what happened with the true story; people can look it up. I think a lot of people are going to see it based on the actors that are involved, the occupation that it is, firefighting, Joe the director, and these different elements, but I think what Joe and our screenwriter Eric Singer did is not rushing to the tragedy, not building this movie on the last catastrophe. They really do a good job of showing these guys and what they stood for, and not exploiting them for their deaths. They did a good job of not skipping through the first two-thirds of the movie just to get to that ending, which you know is going to be emotional and tragic and all those things. They did a really good job, and that is difficult to do – and there is nothing cliché about this movie at all.

What was it like working with the stunt team and the special effects crew, learning how to work with the practical fire elements?

The stunt team did a really great job. I had a stunt double for a few things, really not that much, but the entire stunt team and production too, they were able to construct this fake area of wild lands so that they could control the fire. There were times, absolutely, when the fire was really, really hot, but that’s how it goes. In real life, these guys, that’s what they’re feeling and they still have to focus and do their job. It added a sense of realism for the actor, which is always helpful.

It gives you something to interact with and act off against.

Yeah. The fire, there actually will be some CGI fire just to show the scope of it, but when you see the actors feeling the heat of the fire, that’s real fire.

I’m a big comic book movie geek, and in this movie, there are so many actors who’ve been in comic book movies. Were there any moments when anyone on set went “there’s Mr. Fantastic, there’s Gambit, there’s Thanos, there’s Obadiah Stane” and was geeking out over there?

No…I think when we were filming, Josh had [just] been cast as Thanos, so we would chat with him a little bit about that. This story was so important to everybody, everyone was kind of focused on that and wanted to do these real guys justice.

Finally, do blondes have more fun Miles?

Um, they do. When I dyed my hair blonde, I felt just very free and liberated. I just felt better about myself than when I was a brunette.

That really holds true?

Yes.

Hail, Caesar!

For F*** Magazine

HAIL, CAESAR!

Director : Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast : Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 10 March 2016
Rating : PG

The Coen Brothers peel back the curtain on the turning cogs of the ‘50s Hollywood studio system machine in this comedy. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a fixer employed by Capitol Pictures, who has to ensure that celebrities’ dirty laundry remains in the hamper. When Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of the blockbuster Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, is abducted, it’s up to Mannix to procure the $100 000 ransom and rescue the actor. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), another one of Mannix’s clients, is a “singing cowboy” actor who is cast in a period drama helmed by prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) in the studio’s attempt to push him as a big star. He is drawn into Mannix’s mission to find Whitlock. Other figures working on the Capitol Pictures soundstages include actress/synchronised swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) and song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (Tatum), who harbours a dark secret.

            At the time of writing, Hail, Caesar! has an 82% score from film critics but only a 45% audience score on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes. The Coens’ tribute to 50s Hollywood is certainly geared towards cinephiles and packs in plenty of nostalgic period detail, with plenty of homages to the tropes and styles of that era’s moviemaking business. There’s a freewheeling frivolity to the film that might alienate those unfamiliar with the historical context in which the Hail, Caesar! is set. There are Easter Eggs and references galore, most of which were lost on this reviewer. In addition to drawing on the films of Old Hollywood, the Coens reference their own back catalogue: the fictional Capitol Pictures studio also featured in Barton Fink.

The Coens have written and directed some startlingly bleak black comedies, and in contrast, Hail, Caesar! is a frothy and frolicsome enterprise. By having the main character be a studio fixer, whose job it is to keep everyone in line and on brand, the Coens have the opportunity to satirise the iron grip the Old Hollywood studio system had on its contract stars. We do get some of that, to be sure, but the film favours silliness over bite at every turn.



            Because of the clout the Coens have built up over their career, they have access to some big names and many of the cast members in Hail, Caesar! are returning Coen Brothers alumni. Eddie Mannix is a fictionalisation of the real-life Hollywood fixer-turned producer of the same name. Brolin captures the character’s strong work ethic and is a reliable straight man of the “comically serious” variety, trudging through the over-the-top shenanigans that occur throughout the film. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Hail, Caesar!, Clooney plays characters who aren’t too bright, forming the so-called “numbskull trilogy”. Here, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is modelled after Kirk Douglas; his character in the film-within-a-film being a Roman centurion who is eventually moved by the power of Jesus Christ. Clooney’s lackadaisical charm shines through; Clooney clearly very comfortable working with the Coens.

            A selection of famous faces pop up in extended cameos that could be described as “gratuitous” if one isn’t in a particularly charitable mood – but we’ll be darned if the casting isn’t spot on. Swinton hams it up in a dual role as rival gossip columnists who happen to be twin sisters. Coens oft-collaborator Frances McDormand is a film editor who has a scarf-related mishap and Jonah Hill shows up as a surety agent. Johansson plays an Esther Williams-esque actress and participates in a lavishly choreographed synchronised swimming sequence. Her character is perceived as sweet and elegant, when she’s actually a surly, irascible chain-smoker. Tatum is absolutely hilarious here, while also getting to show off some very fancy footwork in a tap dance number that’s a tribute to Gene Kelly. Ehrenreich may not be as well-known as his co-stars, but he’s plenty likeable as the unrefined singing cowboy who has his life taken over by the studio.

            Hail, Caesar!is plenty of very broadly played fun and is sure to appeal to viewers who have an affinity with the movies of 50s Hollywood and the behind-the-scenes gossip that came with them. Alas, it’s far from the Coens’ sharpest material and there are instances where they seem to be caught up in the minutiae and get a little carried away with their elaborate odes to this bygone era of filmmaking. This can be viewed as something of a companion piece to Trumbo, set against the same political climate in Hollywood but played straight, natch. If it’s nostalgia, whimsy and a couple of intricately staged musical numbers that you’re after, the Coens have got you covered.

Summary: A light-hearted romp through 50s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is packed with loving homages but does play a little too “inside baseball” for non-initiates to get into.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Everest

For F*** Magazine

EVEREST

Director : Baltasar Kormákur
Cast : Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 24 September 2015
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)
There is a Chinese proverb that warns of the dangers of the oceans, which roughly translates to “bully the mountain but never bully the water”. It turns out that mountains aren’t to be trifled with either. It is 1996 and Rob Hall (Clarke), founder of expedition guide agency Adventure Consultants, is leading a group of climbers up Mount Everest. His clients for this season include Doug Hansen (Hawkes), a mailman who has made two failed attempts to ascend Everest; Beck Weathers (Brolin), a Texan doctor; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has climbed six of the world’s seven tallest peaks and is hoping to complete that list by reaching the top of Everest; and journalist Jon Krakauer (Kelly). Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) is pregnant with their first child and is awaiting his safe return. It is a crowded climbing season at Everest base camp, with expeditions from various countries and Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal), founder of the rival expedition agency Mountain Madness, also with their eyes on the prize. When disaster strikes at the roof of the world, every last ounce of determination and endurance will be required to stay alive in the most inhospitable of conditions. 
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a well-documented tragedy, covered by multiple books, documentaries and a TV movie. Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air is probably the best-known account, though some have called the veracity of his version of events into question. The poster claims Everest is “the most dangerous place on earth”, though mountains like Annapurna, K2 and the Eiger have claimed a larger ratio of lives. Still, that’s not to diminish the obvious risk inherent in climbing Everest. Director Baltasar Kormákur is clearly striving for a depiction that is as accurate, objective and respectful as possible, lending the movie the vibe of a National Geographic docu-drama re-enactment, but with a much larger budget and better actors. Movies allow audiences a glimpse into worlds they would never step into otherwise, and Everest achieves a sufficient degree of authenticity, thanks to location shooting in Italy’s Ötztal Alps, Iceland and Nepal itself. This is a film that was made for the IMAX 3D format and while there is an actual IMAX 3D Everest documentary, this film offers a more immersive and thrilling experience because of its narrative. 
The movie makes it crystal clear that ascending Mount Everest is a behemoth undertaking, involving training and acclimatisation, complex logistics, the harshest of elements and coming at a high monetary cost as well. The screenplay, credited to Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson, tidily explains the rules and technicalities in layman’s terms while not dropping exposition into the audience’s lap wholesale. The film, via Michael Kelly’s portrayal of Krakauer, directly addresses the question most viewers would have on their minds – “why climb Everest at all?” The famous words of pioneering mountaineer George Mallory, “because it’s there”, are invoked, but the answer – if there is a singular one – seems far more ineffable and we are able to see just how much conquering the famous peak means to the various people in the story. 
Everest boasts an impressive cast by any standards, so there is the danger of it becoming “famous people on a mountain” and losing the verisimilitude of the true story. Thankfully, this is largely averted. Jason Clarke is excellent, portraying Rob Hall as diligent and attentive, while also aiming to turn a profit/make a living. Josh Brolin’s rugged charm is on full display, but it is John Hawkes who turns out to be the emotional core of the film. Hawkes’ portrayal of Doug, whose passion for mountaineering has rendered him near-penniless and has driven a wedge in his relationship with his wife and family, is quietly, painfully sympathetic. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is the laid-back, free-spirited counterpoint to the by-the-book Rob, and the film benefits from never sensationalising the rivalry to cartoony proportions. 
We do wish Naoko Mori’s Yasuko Namba got more screen time – this is a woman who has successfully conquered six of the seven tallest mountains in the world by the age of 47, and is clearly a fascinating person. However, we concede that giving everyone their moment to shine in an ensemble picture is tricky, let alone when set against the staggering backdrop of a mountaineering disaster. The film also falls back on the “anxious wife back home” cliché, with Keira Knightley and Robin Wright as Rob’s wife Jan and Beck’s wife Peach respectively. The fact that Jan was pregnant at the time might come off as emotionally manipulative – but then again, that is what actually took place and while it’s a formula we’ve seen many times before, we can’t think of a viable alternative to portray what the climbers’ families were going through. 
While there is not a huge amount of room to establish the climbers as fully-developed characters, they are several notches up from being faceless victims and it easy to get invested in their plight. There are certain points where it might be difficult to tell the characters apart, since they are all clad in heavy-duty winter gear, are wearing goggles and mostly bearded. 
Many films are pitched as “celebrating the triumph of the human spirit”. There is an element of that in Everest, to be sure, but it is tempered with the idea of Mother Nature as a harsh mistress. As the line in the film goes, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” There’s no sugar-coating, no manufactured “Hollywood ending”, with the conclusion bittersweet in that it’s 80% bitter and 20% sweet. Everest gets off to a slow start and because the tragedy it’s based on was so well-publicised, many viewers will know how it ends, but this is a journey that is largely worth the while. 
Summary: A respectful, credible account of the 1996 Everest disaster that overcomes the bits of survival drama formula it must include with some terrific performances and harrowing spectacle. 
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Sicario

For F*** Magazine

SICARIO

Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast : Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernandez, Victor Garber
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Run Time : 121 mins
Opens : 17 September 2015
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Violence)
As another presidential election rears its head, U.S.-Mexico border issues are as hot a topic as ever. The so-called “war on drugs” rages on in this thriller. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent from Phoenix, Arizona specialising in kidnap response. Kate is selected to join a task force cracking down on drug cartel crime on the border. Department of Justice consultant Matt Graver (Brolin) leads the task force, aided by the enigmatic mercenary Alejandro (Del Toro), a former prosecutor turned efficient hitman.  Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) suspect that Matt and Alejandro are not being upfront with them from the start, and Kate soon finds herself dealing with far more than she bargained for as she wades into the murky waters of the escalating conflict on the border. 
Sicario‘ is a slang term for ‘hitman’ used in Mexico. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who helmed the kidnapping drama Prisoners and is attached to the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Sicario is a straight-ahead thriller and markedly different from his last directorial effort, the mind-bending psychological thriller Enemy. Villeneuve presides over the proceedings with an even hand, crafting an intense, slow-burning film. Favouring disquieting “calm before the store” moments instead of a flashy bursts of action, this detached approach means that the film always feels grounded instead of over the top. However, it also means that it might be difficult for some audiences to truly sink their teeth into the story, since in avoiding heightened spectacle, Sicario is sometimes dull. 
Action movies are a dime a dozen, but interestingly, there has been a dearth of truly serious action-thrillers. Most contemporary Hollywood action flicks have a mere veneer of grimness and may be entertaining but are rarely really about anything. The violence here is uncompromising and ugly, never slick and glossy, with mutilated bodies hanging from bridges in full view. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan consciously avoids over-simplifying the issues at the heart of Sicario. There is a subplot focusing on everyman Mexican cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) and his family, which attempts to show the toll the war on drugs takes on average folk. Border politics and the nature of this particular conflict are anything but clean-cut and Sicario does a good job of reflecting that the concept of a black and white morality is an antiquated one and old-fashioned good guys just don’t really exist anymore. 
We see this through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, who goes through the familiar arc of the fresh-faced rookie who has her idealism swiftly eroded when she sees how things actually work. While it isn’t exactly untrodden territory, Blunt is excellent in the role, reminiscent of Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty. Kate is not afraid to question authority, though as the story progresses, she starts to see less and less of a point in doing so. Blunt continues to showcase her versatility and there are several moments where Kate is brought to her knees that could have been overwrought in the hands of a lesser actress. 
Josh Brolin is right in his element, slyly entertaining as the lackadaisical Matt Graver. He wears flip-flops into serious meetings and doesn’t quite look to be in the best shape, but when means business, he means business. Benicio Del Toro complements him well, his character methodical and deadly but with a vital unpredictable streak. It seems like Del Toro is contractually obligated to appear in almost every drug trade thriller from Savages to Paradise Lost, but he doesn’t phone it in here. Del Toro brings an intriguing mixture of primal animalistic instinct and an underlying sadness and vulnerability to the part. However, the film does trip up on the age-old storytelling trap of establishing a character as unpredictable and mysterious, so we expect him to do the unexpected and it isn’t so much of a surprise when he does. 
Cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners, return here. It is not the aerial views of arid desert expanses that have the most impact, but strangely mesmerizing shots of dust particles suspended in the air. Jóhannsson’s dissonant, droning score ups the queasiness provided by alternating thermal imaging and night-vision camera points of view. The twists and turns in the story are not as surprising as they could have been, but Sicario is a tough, riveting thriller featuring on-point performances and helmed by a very promising director. 
Summary: This subdued, grim thriller is almost too restrained but it is well-acted and sufficiently haunting. 

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong 

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

For F*** Magazine

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR 

Director : Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Cast : Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Juno Temple, Jaime King, Bruce Willis, Jamie Chung, Lady Gaga, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 8 August 2014
Rating : R21 (Violence, Nudity & Sexual Scenes) 
Running time: 102 mins
SC2_1sh_FINALBasin CITY. A cesspool dripping with BLOODand ALCOHOLand SEXand GRIME. A grimy CESSPOOL. NINE years after the FIRSTmovie, we RETURN. FOUR interlocking stories. “Just ANOTHERSaturday NIGHT” – Marv (Rourke) BEATS up PUNKS and hangs off the side of POLICE CARS. “The Long BAD Night” – Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), a self-assured young gambler, beats Senator Roark (Boothe) in a GAMEof POKER. Big MISTAKE. “A DAMEto Kill For” – Ava Lord (Green), sly WICKEDNESS taken the form of a WOMAN. She CASTSher SPELLupon former flame Dwight (Brolin) once more. Can he ESCAPE this enchantress’ GRASP? “Nancy’s Last DANCE” – stripper Nancy (Alba) is victim no MORE. She seeks to AVENGE the death of Hartigan (Willis), her PROTECTOR. AVENGINGhis DEATH. Her crosshairs are SET on Roark.
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            This reviewer had planned to write the whole thing in the style of Frank Miller but gave up after that paragraph. The first Sin City film broke its share of ground by hewing closely to the stylisation Miller had drawn into his graphic novels, using visual effects and cinematography to replicate the striking aesthetic of the Sin City books. Black and white with occasional violent bursts of selective colour, often lapsing into animated silhouettes. Miller was initially reluctant to allow an adaptation to be filmed, but Robert Rodriguez won him over and they became co-directors on both movies. It’s nine years later and it’s not quite so novel anymore. In-between then and now we’ve had the likes of 300 and the dismal The Spirit, the latter directed by Miller himself. It’s still a great gimmick and we bet this movie is stunning in 3D (we saw the 2D version). However, any gimmick can only carry a film so far.

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            The movie is clearly striving for a noir feel but so much of the Frank Miller dialogue, in reaching for a hard-boiled attitude, comes off as laughably silly. “It’s another hot night. The kind of night that makes people do sweaty, secret things,” Dwight says in voiceover. When he gets kicked in the crotch, he describes it as “an atom bomb go(ing) off between my legs.” The intensity of all the brutal, wince-inducing violence in the film ends up being undercut by the writing. “A Dame to Kill For” has as its central character an evil, manipulative, often-naked seductress. Eva Green vamps it up entertainingly as is her speciality, but there’s not much more to Ava Lord than that – she’s a textbook femme fatale. The character’s speech about the nature of insanity and evil from the graphic novel, which would have added a layer or two, is cut. “Nancy’s Last Dance”, an original story written for this film, also undoes everything the character went through in the first film. Nancy, that narrow beam of light that was able to escape the darkness of Sin City, is now just another avenging angel. “The Long Bad Night”, the other original story, is carried by Gordon-Levitt playing against Boothe but is never wholly compelling.

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            The film’s ensemble cast gets to play it up in ways few other movies would let them, to mostly entertaining results. Josh Brolin, playing Dwight before the character had plastic surgery to look like Clive Owen, is convincingly tough and grizzled. Powers Boothe is a hoot as a “love to hate” villain of the most extreme variety. Gordon-Levitt sinks his teeth into playing Johnny in his transition from cocksure and feeling untouchable to wounded and seething. The afore-mentioned Green, taking the role long-linked to Angelina Jolie, does look like she’s having a ball and seems extremely comfortable with the nigh-gratuitous nudity. Speaking of showing skin, Jessica Alba famously has a no-nudity clause but given Nancy’s get-ups in this film, she might as well be naked. Her attempts at playing an angry Nancy galvanised into taking up arms against Roark are ropey at best. Bruce Willis plays a ghost. Odd sense of déjà vu there.

            In 2005, before the full-on boom of movies based on comic books and graphic novels that we’re experiencing now, Sin Citywas unlike anything else out there. It was striking, bold and impactful. Now, the cool factor of the film being shot on a digital back-lot with everything but the actors and key props computer-generated has subsided. As over the top as A Dame to Kill For is, it falls short of the visceral oomph the first film had. Comic book fans know Frank Miller as a writer and artist who helped define the medium with the likes of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, but who seems to have lost his mind, judging from the atrocious likes of Holy Terror and All Star Batman and Robin. His misogynistic attitudes and obsession with dark faux-poetry are on full display in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez serving as little more than his errand boy.

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Summary: There’s no kill like overkill –Sin City: A Dame to Kill For brims with eye-catching imagery and uncompromising depictions of violence and sex, but there is little beneath its glossy, lurid surface.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Guardians of the Galaxy

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
2014
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action, Adventure, Sci-fi
Opens : 31 July 2014
Rating : PG13 
Run time: 121 mins

            Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is drawing to a close, the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron imminent. With Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU heads, to quote Dragonheart’s Draco, “to the stars”. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt), taken from earth as a child, is in search of a prized orb. His treasure hunt sets him on a collision course with some rather colourful characters. These include Gamora (Saldana), an assassin and the adopted daughter of the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Brolin), Drax (Bautista), hungry for vengeance after his wife and child are slain, Rocket (Cooper), a smart-mouthed, cybernetically-enhanced raccoon and Groot (Diesel), a humanoid tree creature. This unlikely band calls themselves “the Guardians of the Galaxy”, confronting bounty hunter Korath (Hounsou), treacherous zealot Ronan (Pace) and Gamora’s jealous adopted sister Nebula (Gillan) in order to prevent Ronan from getting his hands on a cataclysmic weapon.

            Following the departure of director Edgar Wright and actor Patrick Wilson from the upcoming Ant-Man, murmurs have begun to swirl that the executives at Marvel Studios are exercising too much creative control over their films. That Guardians of the Galaxy even got made assuages those fears at least a little. Producer Kevin Feige says this is the “riskiest movie [he’s] done since Iron Man” and that is not hyperbole. In the hands of maverick director James Gunn, he of Slither, James Gunn’s PG Pornand Troma Pictures fame, GotG is wild, woolly and drastically different from everything else that has come before in the MCU. If Thor, drawing on Norse mythology, was outré, this is certainly even more so. The screenplay which Gunn co-wrote with Nicole Perlman is sharp and consistently funny, irreverent yet far from cynical and alienating (hee) as it well could’ve been.  

            In an age where it feels Hollywood has gotten more and more homogenised, it is refreshing to see a big-budget, mass-market blockbuster that is, well, this refreshing. Spectacle is not in short supply, the world-building on display truly dazzling and electric. For at least a few kids out there, this is going to be their Star Wars: Xandar, Knowhere, the Kyln, the Dark Aster their Tatoonie, Bespin, Hoth or Death Star. These are colourful worlds but they still retain grit and believability. The visual effects work, the character animation on Rocket and Groot in particular, is very commendable. The tree-creature and the talking raccoon both convincingly inhabit the same space as the flesh-and-blood actors, their expressions and movements nuanced and even genuinely moving.

            Chris Pratt is proving himself to be an unlikely but most deserving leading man, shedding the pounds and putting on the muscle to play Star-Lord. His comedic timing and roguish charm combine to make him an ideal protagonist, reminiscent of Han Solo in the best way possible. Saldana continues to hold her own as the capable, commanding action girl of the moment and Bautista brings heart and warmth to the literal-minded, muscle-bound Drax. Taking Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, arguably two of the bigger names of the cast, and having them provide voices for animated characters can be seen as yet another intentionally unorthodox move on the part of the filmmakers. Saying “I am Groot” repeated ad nauseam may sound like an easy paycheck but Diesel, who broke our hearts as the Iron Giant back in 1999, brings that same basso profundo kindness to Groot – and sounds great angry, too. Hollywood superstars with little real voice-acting experience often “die in the booth” –Cooper does not. As the irascible raccoon, he is amusing but also makes the character far more than the requisite funny talking animal and is certainly a better choice than Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, rumoured to be attached to the part.

            Unfortunately, the film suffers slightly in the villains’ department. Lee Pace delights in being showy and menacing, Karen Gillan is still a knockout playing against type, even painted blue and with a bald head and Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos is but a teaser for his later involvement in the MCU. All quite serviceable, it’s just that their confrontations with our heroes are not as dramatic and explosive as they could’ve been. Still, this is at the expense of character development for the titular team and this is more than forgivable. The eclectic supporting cast including names as disparate as Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and Michael Rooker add a distinct flavour to the proceedings as well.

            Guardians of the Galaxy is everything this reviewer loves about movies, particularly movies that defined his tastes during childhood. There’s action, adventure, humour, visual fireworks and just enough heartstring-tugging sentiment. The soundtrack is excellent as well, Star-Lord viewing his mix-tapes as precious family heirlooms and the only physical reminder of his late mother he has left. And ultimately, this is a movie about a ragtag bunch that may be far-out but are still relatable and are totally the kinds of people (and raccoons and tree-creatures) you’d want to sit in a cantina with and just hang out. Oh, and the post-credit scene for this one is the biggest treat any hard-core fan of the weirder corners of the Marvel Universe could ever want.


Summary: Out of this world.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong