Venom

Genre: Action

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee

Running Length: 112 minutes

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) attempts a comeback following a scandal, but accidentally becomes the host of an alien symbiote that gives him a violent super alter-ego: Venom. Soon, he must rely on his newfound powers to protect the world from a shadowy organisation looking for a symbiote of their own.

Review: The only question on my mind when the credits started rolling on Venom was “what happened?” Where was the dark, gritty movie that the trailers advertised? Why does it feel like director Ruben Fleischer made two totally different movies, but couldn’t decide which version of Venom to go with? Honestly, Venom in its current form is a mess, and its only saving grace is a somewhat decent performance by Tom Hardy, as well as some genuine laughs that could be had – as long as you go into the cinema cognizant that this film is a weird love-child between Deadpool and Spider-Man.

A large part of the problem with Venom is its screenplay – the group effort from Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel is unfocused and takes too much time to get to the point, with an overlong first act that sets up the story but presents Eddie Brock as a bumbling buffoon more than a sharp, street-smart reporter he’s supposed to be. It’s only when Venom starts manifesting himself that the proceedings get more interesting, but then the film pivots too far in the other direction, presenting the combination of Eddie and Venom more like bros than antiheroes, ineffective buddy cops rather than a powerful alien symbiote and its unwilling human host. It’s entertaining, without a doubt, but having seen Tom Hardy in far more impressive performances, this does feel like a step down.

The other actors fare even worse than Hardy – Michelle Williams struggles to do something meaningful with her bland, rote love interest character, and the usually interesting Riz Ahmed is unable to break out of the clichéd confines of his megalomaniac role. Both actors are literally there as plot devices, and not even very essential ones at that.

It doesn’t help that Fleischer has made some pretty questionable directorial choices as well – he somehow decided that the best way to showcase the (anti)climactic final showdown between two near-black characters is at night with minimal lighting, and similarly the action sequences throughout the movie are not particularly well-choreographed nor visually interesting. The effects also come across as rather sub-par (especially when we are all so used to the top-tier effects in both Marvel and DC superhero movies), and it’s even more apparent in IMAX 3D (save your money and go for 2D).

In a recent interview, Tom Hardy groused that all his favourite parts of Venom was cut out of the movie, and there is a strong sense that what he said is true. Venom is a wasted opportunity to take the Sony part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a different direction. While obviously Sony will have a vested interest to milk more titles out of the Venom sub-universe (and clearly indicated in the film’s mid-credits), the way this first film ended up will likely put the franchise’s future in jeopardy.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Genre: Action

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay:Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: From the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes Ant-Man and The Wasp, a new chapter featuring heroes with the astonishing ability to shrink. In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a super hero and a father. As he struggles to rebalance his life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) with an urgent new mission. Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside the Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from the past.

Review: After the seismic events in Avengers: Infinity War that shook the Marvel Cinematic Universe to its core – and left many Marvel fans hoping for 2019 to come round much sooner – we suddenly take an extremely leisurely, benign diversion in Ant-Man and the Wasp, where nothing much is seemingly at stake apart from family life. It’s not always a bad thing to be lightweight – after all there’s only that much world-ending seriousness one can take – but there are brief moments in the film where it feels like there’s actually no real reason for this sequel to be in existence.

I had enjoyed the original Ant-Man despite its similarly lightweight ambitions, but a second film revolving around familiar ground (size shifting shenanigans and unmemorable villains, to name two) does seem to be pushing it a little. Fortunately, Evangeline Lilly is given a much meatier role this time round as the Wasp, and she’s far more entertaining to observe as a second superhero with a size-altering suit than Paul Rudd himself, with the added bonus of there being excellent chemistry (romantic and otherwise) between the two. Paul Rudd continues to charm as the everyman superhero, but make no mistake, this movie’s true star is Wasp/Lilly.

Peyton Reed is an old hand at directing comedies, and it will probably come as no surprise that his second superhero action movie is much more assured in its pacing and comic timing. While there are still the requisite CG-heavy action sequences, Reed deftly inserts in more comedic moments that you can shake a stick at, and even though some of the gags feel a bit tired the second time round (I wasn’t really impressed by Michael Pena’s “lip sync” sequence in this film), it still makes for a breezy movie experience overall.

Perhaps it’s because Marvel has had such a good run of late that Ant-Man and the Wasp comes across as underwhelming despite good intentions. By no means is it a bad movie, but it just feels so inconsequential especially following the footsteps of Infinity War, and even more jarringly so when it’s clear that these characters exist on the same planet/plane as the rest of the Avengers. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and (to a lesser extent) Thor had the benefit of being siloed from the main MCU storyline, but given that everything has now converged, even a side-story like Ant-Man and the Wasp seems to stick out like a sore thumb when it doesn’t fall in line with the rest of the titles. Add to that some of the worst, most unconvincing (and confusing!) pseudo-science spouted in the MCU thus far, and it’s quite clear that Ant-Man and the Wasp is the textbook definition of “a mixed bag”.

P.S. The requisite end-credit codas are in place, but if you are pressed for time, the coda that sits at the very end of the credits is totally inconsequential (and feels like it’s there simply to “reward” every audience member that sat through the rather lengthy list of names).

Rating:* * * (out of four stars)

 

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Genre: Action

Director: J.A. Bayona

Screenplay: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Conolly

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Geraldine Chaplin, Kamil Lemieszewski, Justice Smith, Peter Jason

Running Length: 128 minutes

Synopsis: Three years after the destruction of Jurassic World, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return to the island of Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs from a volcano that’s about to erupt. They soon encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs while uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the entire planet.

Review: Back in my review of Jurassic World in 2015, I had commented that there didn’t seem to be much narrative space left in the Jurassic Park/World universe to warrant a fifth film. Given the massive box office success that Jurassic World was (a staggering US$1.6 billion), however, it was only natural that a sequel would be planned. Fast forward three years later, and the resulting film is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which wisely moves the action out of the theme park setting but doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. While visuals are top notch and director J.A. Bayona has managed to create a number of effective “close quarters” set-pieces, there’s this nagging sense that the movie is an extraneous one, except that it has a very big budget to play with.

The focus of the Jurassic franchise has never been the human actors, and once again the leads are passable but not memorable. While Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady was still quite refreshing the first time round, the fact that we’ve seen the same Dude persona in three Marvel movies plus the previous Jurassic World means that the charm is wearing off. Bryce Dallas Howard reprises her role but has even less to do this time round. The newcomers barely leave a dent despite a pretty persistent presence in the film, likewise for some of the more recognizable faces like Jeff Goldblum, James Cromwell and B.D. Wong.

What does impress in Fallen Kingdom remains the dinosaurs – it seems quite clear that J.A. Bayona was aiming for more believability than the previous film, and there’s a lot of animatronic work on top of excellently rendered dinosaurs. This is a definite improvement over Jurassic World, and there are moments where the use of puppets over CG helps make interactions between humans and dinosaurs feel more authentic. And while the action is largely predictable, the major set-pieces are actually genuinely thrilling, particularly the opening reel as well as the latter scenes involving the Indoraptor.

Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom seems to lose momentum in its final half hour, and the denouement feels underwhelming given the rather extensive buildup. The fact that most of the dinosaurs are seen confined in very small spaces doing nothing for much of the movie is also quite disappointing, especially since the film prides itself on featuring the most species of dinosaurs in the franchise’s history. Taken as a summer action blockbuster, Fallen Kingdom still manages to deliver, but it will not hold up to closer scrutiny nor stand the test of time like the original Jurassic Park. The open-ended conclusion leaves the door open for another sequel, but if the franchise doesn’t do more to evolve, it will likely end up going extinct.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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Deadpool 2

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: David Leitch

Screenplay: Ryan Reynolds, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand, Julian Dennison, Stefan Kapicic, T.J. Miller, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgard, Rob Delaney, Shioli Kutsuna, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel’s motormouth mercenary is back! Bigger, better and occasionally more pantless than ever before. When a super soldier arrives on a murderous mission, Deadpool is forced to think about friendship, family and what it really means to be a hero – all while kicking 50 shades of ass. Because, sometimes, to do the right thing you need to fight dirty.

Review: The biggest difference between the original Deadpool film and Deadpool 2 is that, unshackled from the uncertainty of box office success, Ryan Reynolds and the team around his long-gestating anti-superhero project is able to truly pull out all the stops the second time around, resulting in a film that is bigger than its predecessor in every conceivable way. There’s more gore, more fourth wall-breaking, more action, more gags, more cameos and more heart, but more isn’t necessarily better. While Deadpool 2 remains a generally very entertaining film, it almost wears out its welcome in its final reel (this is however, somewhat mitigated by the film having one of the best end credit codas ever, almost worth the price of admission on its own). Suffice to say that only fans of the first Deadpool need apply, and even then, some viewers may find themselves feeling occasionally underwhelmed by the proceedings.

Deadpool was a complete surprise and a breath of fresh air when it debuted in 2016, but two years down the road, Deadpool 2 has to navigate a rather different set of expectations. Now that his snarky comments and meta awareness is anticipated, how more can things be shaken up for the formula to remain interesting? One of the ways this is addressed in Deadpool 2 is simply with the injection of a much larger roster of characters, and as the trailer has revealed, Deadpool actually gets to put together a rogue crew of superheroes he terms the X-Force.

However, not many of them leave an impression apart from Zazie Beetz’s Domino (who lays claim to the coolest action sequence in the film) and of course Cable, Josh Brolin’s second superhero movie outing in as many months. Brolin has an intensity and presence here that’s befitting of his more serious work, and his Cable would be a character that I hope makes a return in future MCU movies. Ryan Reynolds continues to command the screen with his presence even though he is always in a mask or under a mountain of makeup, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever playing the character of Deadpool – Reynolds IS Deadpool through and through, and apart from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, no one else in both comic cinematic universes come close.

Although the film’s positioning cannot be further from Disney’s Marvel offering just a few weeks back (that’s Avengers: Infinity War for the three of you that were living in a bunker for the last year), it adopts a similar strategy in throwing as much as possible at the audience and hoping at least some of it sticks. This has resulted in a movie that runs two hours long, but the catch here is that the film feels longer than that at times, especially when it revisits gags from the previous film, and would have definitely benefited from a more judicious edit.

Worthy of special mention is Deadpool 2’s soundtrack. Not only are songs used in unexpected ways – an example would be a gory fight sequence accompanied by Dolly Parton’s chirpy “9 to 5” – there’s even a new power ballad by Celine Dion employed in an opening credits sequence that would make James Bond proud. The score is also the first ever to earn a parental advisory warning, something that would make complete sense if you stay through to the very end of the credits.

In press interviews, Reynolds has said that Deadpool 2 is a family movie masquerading as a superhero movie, and in some aspects this is very true. Apart from the comedy and the action, what truly makes the film tick is that the audiences will feel vested in not just Deadpool’s fate, but those around him as well, in particular the young but talented Julian Dennison who plays the conflicted mutant Firefist. While it is hard to see how a third Deadpool movie would fare, Deadpool 2 improves on some aspects of the first film and looks like it would have a good chance to better the records set by Deadpool, even with its imperfections.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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Avengers: Infinity War

Genre: Action

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Chadwick Boseman, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vin Diesel, Benicio del Toro

Running Length: 149 minutes

Synopsis: An unprecedented cinematic journey ten years in the making and spanning the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War brings to the screen the ultimate, deadliest showdown of all time. The Avengers and their superhero allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.

Review: It has taken ten years and 18 (!) movies to get to this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and expectations are riding higher than ever on Avengers: Infinity War, especially following what is easily one of the best Marvel movies to date (Black Panther, for anyone who’s living under a rock). For the most part, the film does deliver and is the best Avengers movie so far, but as it’s essentially (and somewhat frustratingly) incomplete, Infinity War fails to deliver the catharsis that many fans must have been looking forward to. While the film will for sure go gangbusters at the box office, Infinity War feels a little perfunctory, too neat and orchestrated for its own good.

A large contributing factor is the film’s rather oddly positioned cliffhanger “finale”, which can come across as a cheat, as though the entire two-plus hour film is merely a very extended trailer of the yet-untitled fourth Avengers movie due in 2019. The film also occasionally creaks under the sheer weight of its immense roster of characters, and it’s clear that despite the deft machinations of scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they did not manage to make every character’s appearance in the film a meaningful one.

Particularly disappointing is how flat Thanos comes across, despite a rather effective motion capture performance by Josh Brolin (though the character’s design is not helped by an early dig by Chris Pratt’s Starlord in the film, which assuredly is something many audiences will be unable to unsee thereafter, myself included). Thanos exists almost purely as a plot device to move things along, and is really only effective in a single scene that prominently features Zoe Saldana’s Gamora (who gives one of the most memorable performances in the franchise so far). For a villain that has been built up over multiple films in the past years, this is an underwhelming showing.

Despite the flaws inherent in the film, Infinity War manages to check off enough boxes to make it a must-watch for anyone who has even the slightest vested interest in the MCU. There are great action set-pieces (even if some scenes threaten to overwhelm the senses), and despite the darker narrative slant, the Russo brothers still manage to find space for moments of levity. And even for a jaded moviegoer like me, just seeing some of these characters share the screen and interact with each other is still a thrill, harkening back to the earlier days of the Marvel films. It’s an ambitious gambit to throw in everything including the kitchen sink into two movies, but it works, although just barely. It will not be fair to judge Infinity War on its own, and the effectiveness of the movie can only be measured when the second half makes its appearance next year, but suffice to say that despite feeling a little irked, my interest remains piqued.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

P.S. Yes, as tradition requires, you will need to sit through the long end credits crawl to get to a post-credits coda. Just one this time!

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Black Panther

Genre: Action

Director: Ryan Coogler

Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Running Length: 134 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ Black Panther follows T’Challa (Boseman) who, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king. But when a powerful old enemy reappears, T’Challa’s mettle as king – and Black Panther – is tested when he is drawn into a formidable conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people and their way of life.

Review: Just when you thought there’s no possible way to further push the envelope within the Marvel Cinematic Universe after 17 movies, Black Panther is here to prove us all wrong once again. Much like how Wonder Woman managed to break the mould for female superhero movies, Black Panther stands out amidst what has mostly been a white Caucasian superhero universe by featuring an almost all-black ensemble cast, and largely basing the film in Africa (albeit the fictional country of Wakanda). Although the chief villain still has a personal agenda, he also has a politically-driven goal that gives a bit more depth to the villain than usual. If only the conclusion wasn’t so rote, we would have had a superhero movie that fired on all cylinders and be the one to beat for the 2018 roster.

While Black Panther does have enhanced abilities, his arsenal of technology and weapons is what makes the superhero complete, and in this aspect the film almost feels like an installment in the Bond franchise. All the standard superhero action set pieces still apply, and everything one would expect from such a movie – gunfights, car chases, ritual battles (ok this one not so expected) – is present and accounted for. However, it’s a little disappointing to see the great action devolve into a comparatively uninteresting spandex suit versus spandex suit fisticuff in the final reel that’s easily the least involving action sequence in the whole movie, which takes away a bit of the power of the denouement.

Not only does Black Panther feature an almost all-black cast, it’s a very talented cast particularly for the women. If you thought Wonder Woman would be the sole superhero movie that celebrated feminine empowerment, wait till you see what goes on here with the uniformly excellent female cast. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan (a Coogler veteran, appearing in all of his movies thus far) are both charismatic young men with a great physicality, though their spotlight is repeatedly stolen by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and even Letitia Wright.

Black Panther also features fantastic costume design and art direction – while it’s not the first colorful Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are equally, if not more colorful), this is the first film where the usage of colors and motifs feel like they bear a greater cultural significance without coming across as pandering. The costumes harken back to African history and tribal culture, yet bear some marks of technological advancements – a truly impressive hybrid, and combined with the other stylistic flourishes like hairstyles, jewellery and tattoos, a feast for the eyes. It’s hard to think of any recent movie as visually dazzling as this one.

One thing that truly sets Black Panther apart from its brethren is its political subtext – I can safely say no superhero action movie thus far have delved into the issues that Black Panther touches on, be it the legacy of colonialism, the argument for and against both pacifist activism and militant action, and the conflict between familial ties and leadership of a country. The screenplay by Coogler and Cole is smart and well-written, elevating the film to a level that few MCU movies manage to attain. This is truly one of the best standalone origin films in the MCU, and given the quality of films thus far in the Marvel canon, is high but deserved praise.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Justice League

Genre: Action

Director: Zack Snyder

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Monoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds

Running Length:  120 minutes

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes – Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) – it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

Review: Where to start…? Justice League commits mistakes on so many levels that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it starts to unravel – is it the choice of a bland, generic supervillain? Or the whiplash-inducing changes of pace, probably due to the replacement of Zack Snyder (who quit the show due to a family tragedy) with Joss Whedon, who allegedly reshot 15% – 20% of the movie? Or that the narrative is confused and lacks any coherent focus? Or the decidedly subpar CG visuals (made worse by a very insipid 3D presentation – please stick to 2D for this one)? While it remains a serviceable action film and should make pretty good bank at the box office, the writing is on the wall: the DC Extended Universe is in deep trouble if this movie represents the real trend, and Wonder Woman but a mere anomalous bright spot in what looks like an increasingly untenable franchise.

One of the biggest problems faced by the DCEU is that of tardiness – there’s no denying that Warner Brothers is playing a desperate game of catch-up, being only five movies deep into the DC cinematic mythos, while their Marvel counterpart is far ahead with 17 films already done and dusted. The fact that Justice League is coming before most of the characters’ standalone films (if they even materialize) is a sign of this, and the Justice League film itself suffers narratively because of this. With the need to set up the backstories of multiple superheroes in this ensemble film, the first hour of Justice League moves at a snail’s pace, punctuated only by the occasional murkily choreographed fight sequence that does not feel like central to the plot (see: the battles at Themyscira and Atlantis). Overall, the storytelling in Justice League is a huge, ungainly mess, because it needed to do so many things that nothing really worked.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the buildup of getting the team in place ends up being inconsequential, as the unmemorable Steppenwolf (in a rare feat, Ciarán Hinds’ performance is expensively motion captured and yet looks like a cheap render from a B-movie) is portrayed as being so powerful that it requires a literal deus ex machina to overcome, rendering much of the team-building process moot. That the deus ex machina segment actually is one of the high points of the movie is one of the many little ironies that pervade Justice League. Fortunately, the cast all put in passable performances and exhibit sufficient chemistry with each other, barring Affleck whose turn as an aging Batman is rather insipid and generic.

While it was clear that the pitch-black treatment that Snyder applied to the DC Extended Universe was a wrong move, the reparative actions taken to steer Justice League in the other direction fails to fully convince. It’s clear that Whedon is the one that injected the comedic moments into the film, and while these are fun to watch in silo, it simply does not jibe with the rest of the film. The result is a tonally fragmented film that requires a lot of patience to wade through, and feels like an eternity despite being just two hours long.

Now that Justice League is finally a done deal and likely to be a critic-proof box office hit, Warner Brothers can hopefully finally take some time to let the DCEU develop and steer entirely clear of the shadow Snyder had unfortunately managed to cast on the entire franchise. If the Aquaman movie in 2018 is more akin to Wonder Woman, then at the very least we have some hope that the DCEU will eventually shape up to be a worthy contender to the MCU. That Justice League 2 is still in development without any announced cast, crew or release date is actually good news.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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