Rogue One

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***SPOILERS.***

Now, this is the most satisfying Star Wars film since the Return of the Jedi.

I have to admit that watching the abomination that was The Force Awakens (your mileage may vary) this time last year really did a number on my passion for all things Star Wars.

It didn’t help that the Expanded Universe, the stuff of my childhood, had been thrown out of the window by Disney. The legacy of the characters of the original movies had been besmirched by the events of Episode 7. The prequels were an ignominious stain on the franchise’s name. The KOTOR storyline, which had been that other bright point in the Star Wars universe, had fizzled into a mediocre MMO churning out nonsensical storyline after nonsensical storyline.

I stepped into the theatre to watch Rogue One with low expectations. And, maybe because of that, Rogue One absolutely delivered.

Above all, Rogue One knows what the fans want. It might not be your typical Star Wars movie with the opening crawl and the Campbellian narrative. But it nails the spirit and the feel of the original Star Wars in a way that very few of the franchise’s derivative works have managed to do. From the hallways of the Tantive IV to the cavernous hangars of the Rebel base on Yavin IV, and even the 1970s inspired fashion and accents of the Rebels and Imperials, Rogue One inspires, first and foremost, a sense of nostalgic familiarity with the originals.

Rogue One knows how to do fanservice without being gratuitous about it. I liked some of the callbacks to images and characters in the originals – to the shot of the Rebel signaller witnessing the departure of ships from Yavin IV, to the decidedly retro computer screens (and the Death Star schematics with the superlaser positioned at the equator), to the fleeting appearance of Dr Evazan and his Aqualish sidekick, Ponda Baba, pre-amputation.

Rogue One continues Disney’s commitment to using more practical special effects, and it pays off.  The epic fleet engagement above the skies of Scarif near the end of the film is the best and most visceral space battle since Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor, just because it’s so much more visually coherent and weighty than the weightless, Transformers-esque chaos of the space battles in the prequels. Some parts of that battle, like the hammerhead cruiser gambit, are likely to become holy-shit iconic moments in the franchise as a whole – like how an A-Wing brought down the SSD Executor.

The casting of the OT characters is also spot-on, from Genevieve O’Reilly’s graceful Mon Mothma to Guy Henry’s impeccably-voiced Governor Tarkin (albeit with the uncanny-valley digital recreation of Peter Cushing’s likeness). And, of course, Darth Vader. They really nailed the New Hope version of Vader, who is more sprightly and capable of gallows humor than the brooding figure he cut in latter episodes. And he is in top form – a powerful Force user at the peak of his badassery, force-choking and force-bodyslamming his hapless opponents right and left – an almost primally unstoppable force of nature.

Above all, Rogue Onebiggest achievement is how it is able to so naturally fit into the chronology of the original films, while – in some cases – improving upon them by providing plausible explanations to some of the original trilogy’s more evident plotholes (and yes, it admittedly did much, much better than the EU at this). I have to give credit to the writers, who made sure that Rogue One was a self-contained story that didn’t create narrative reverberations that would have posed problems for the established canon. There are a lot of examples of this spirit, from making the call to have all the heroes perish at the end of the film, thus sidestepping the question of where they were in the originals, to the Battle of Scarif being the “victory” that the Rebels won against the Empire (referenced in the opening crawl in A New Hope) that led to the acquisition of the Death Star plans, to the utter destruction of the Rebel fleet in that battle, which would explain why the Alliance could only marshal a few paltry starfighters to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope.

And, of course, why have such an obvious and glaring weakness in the Death Star plans? The EU has tried to attribute it to simple incompetence, but I find Rogue One’s explanation – it being the secret legacy of its unwilling designer, Galen Erso, as his lasting attempt at penance for his part in the Death Star’s creation, and the main macguffin that necessitates the desperate effort to secure the plans in the first place – is far more thematically apropos. It is a rare occasion where a latter work has provided narrative context that improves upon the originals.

But enough about Rogue One as a Star Wars film. How is it as a film?

It’s actually a remarkably good one – tautly paced, never a dull moment, full of that visually arresting ‘used future’ feel that so set apart the Star Wars movies from everything else.

It’s an unrelentingly sober film, a surprisingly nuanced view of war, of the good guys doing bad things for the cause, as Cassian does when putting down a comrade too injured to escape to prevent his capture by Imperials. The atrocities committed by the Empire are visceral in a way that was never the case with other Star Wars movies. The slow, rolling destruction of Jedha’s Holy City was somehow more horrific than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. 

There is a wide cast of characters, almost too many for some of them to get proper development. Jyn Erso is a little blander than you’d expect for the leading protagonist, and it’s never really clear how she transformed from aimless grifter to a motivated leader of men. Cassian is a little more compelling, his story being one of redemption. Orson Krennic is a great villain, someone who isn’t motivated by any amorphous ideology but simply by greed and ambition, demonstrating a very banal sort of evil.

The side characters range from forgettable to instant crowd pleasers. I feel sorry for how Bodhi Rook seemed to be relegated to a sideshow character, despite his story being possibly the most heroic of all – a perfectly normal bloke who risked everything to defect when he could have stayed, endured countless hardships, and gave his life to transmit the Death Star plans – but was given short shrift relative to the other characters. I wish the warrior monk Chirrut Imwe and his repeater-toting friend, Baze Malbus were given more screentime. And K2-SO, the #nofilter Imperial droid is the standout, providing much needed comic relief to an otherwise unrelenting film.

Spoilers – they all die. And its a brave, almost inspired decision by the filmmakers to do it for the sake of canon, but it also pushes home the message of the human cost of war, and also the impossible hope that emerged from their sacrifice. Rogue One celebrates the everyday folks, the non-Force users who went above and beyond to give Luke Skywalker the chance to be the hero. They are the unknown soldiers. No medals were given for their sacrifice, no tombs were raised. And yet, for a brief moment in the history of Star WarsRogue One gave them their chance to be known.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Calamari cruisers

 

 

 

Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name)

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Kimi no Na Wa is peak Makoto Shinkai, a gorgeously animated science fiction/fantasy romance that speaks to our most idealistic notions of love as transcending space and time, while mostly avoiding some of his more annoying directorial habits.

Some people call Makoto Shinkai the new Miyazaki, but I think that that comparison isn’t particularly apt. Shinkai and Miyazaki, despite sharing a superficial taste in genre and aesthetic, could not be more different. Miyazaki is a traditionalist, an auteur of the old guard, whose hand-animated films possess a naturalistic visual and narrative style that often strangely complements the fantastic creatures and vistas that he conjures.

Shinkai, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern – a director who embraces the contemporary stylistic and visual norms of anime, the tropes and the narrative shortcuts that act like a filmic shorthand to communicate layers of nuance to an audience trained in its subtleties. His character designs are distinctly moe, something Miyazaki would abhor, and the visuals, while striking and gorgeous, are over-the-top: striking wide-angle visuals and thoroughly surreal skies painted with wild colours. There’s even a frenetic J-rock number that opens the film like your regular anime OP.

If anything, Shinkai reminds me of another oft-feted director, Mamoru Hosoda, whose 2012 Wolf Children was a similarly moving masterpiece – a distinctly Japanese take on maternal love. Both directors are all about depicting the extremes of Japan – its distinctly pastoral hinterlands amidst mountains and moss, against its fractious and glistening metropolises, and both specialise in moving and exuberant tales of youthful adolescence taking on the world.

And Kimi no Na Wa is such a tale, featuring two teenaged protagonists, one from the city, one from the country – both striking it out and trying to determine their place in a place like Japan, where tradition runs thicker than water and community is everything. More than most anime of its genre, Kimi no Na Wa captures that sense of adolescent yearning for anything but here, and launches its protagonists on a surreal journey to experience life through the eyes of the other.

And in doing so, the protagonists come to love each other, in an achingly insuperable way that transcends memory and time. If Shinkai has a pet motif (like Miyazaki does with flight), it is surely in the depiction of star-crossed lovers wrenched apart by seemingly immutable gulfs of space and time. Usually, some science fiction or fantasy macguffin is the source of this unwanted estrangement. The Place Promised in our Early Days had the female protagonist in a parallel universe, while Voices of a Distant Star used time dilation. Kimi no Na Wa has a similar conceit: a boy (Taki) and a girl (Mitsuha) who know and love each other by living each other’s lives, the most intimate form of mutual awareness. But, paradoxically, they live each other’s lives as if in a dream, and the memory fades upon awakening. As macguffins go, it is particularly moving and poetic.

As they cross into each other’s worlds, they realise that their fates are tied to a larger cosmic threat, one that bears down on them and provides the stage for an exuberant foray into heroics that is entwined beautifully with the developing romance. Shinkai also adds a healthy dose of a very Shinto-esque sort of mysticism involving the image of braided cords to the mix as a mythological backdrop to the tale. This magic is an expression of the film’s thematic core: that there are cords of fate that link people together through gulfs of space and time, somewhat akin to the East Asian notion of the red string of fate.

There is something achingly magical and primal about these motifs and narrative beats – they represent our subconscious yearning for that transcendental love, that notion that someone out there knows you as intimately as you do yourself and accepts you for it: that somewhere, in some distant temporal brane, one’s soulmate walks. It is, to a large extent, paradoxical in its idealism – can any meaningful connection exist between people who have never really met? The fact that the bond between Taki and Mitsuha persists through time, memory and space is the film’s intoxicating affirmation of that romantic notion. It is heart-achingly cathartic, the sort of escapism that lingers with you long after you’ve exited the theatre, full of wistful longing for something that doesn’t exist in our banal reality. It’s the stuff of the best romances – and right now I can only think of Lyra and Will’s romance in The Amber Spyglass as an example of a similar love story that captures those feelings to the same degree. Which is high praise, indeed.

What Shinkai has accomplished with this film is to create a classic that will surely resonate in more ways than one, with both Japanese and Western audiences, and is undoubtedly his best work yet (of the ones I’ve seen, at least). It’s enough that I can forgive the few odd plotholes that emerge from a plot this dependent on mystical macguffins and a convoluted system of magic. How is it, for example, that Taki had so much trouble finding the name of the town that Mitsuha lived in? Surely he would have heard the name when spending time as her. Why is it that they forget crucial details of each other only when the plot required it?

And, of course, the Shinkai staple – long, rambling sequences, usually in the beginning, when characters do what I can only describe as a collaborative poem in which they just monologue past each other in highly abstract language, accompanied by flashing montage shots of Shinkai’s beautifully crafted vistas. The entirety of 5 Centimeters Per Second was punctuated with these odd visual poems, which are just ways for Shinkai to download his themes into you with the highest possible level of information density as possible – which is hardly the point of the filmic enterprise. Luckily, that annoying habit was constrained to the first five minutes or so of Kimi no Na Wa, and the rest of the film was just moving and epic and made me melancholic at the end of it. That melancholy is how I know I’ve stumbled upon a keeper.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 bottles of kuchikamizake 

 

 

 

Homeworld Remastered Collection

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Homeworld Remastered embodies the space opera genre at its most sweeping and epic, even if its story and characters are a little half-baked, and some of its gameplay mechanics are a bit unbalanced.

The collection is made up of the remastered versions of two distinct games with four years in between their respective releases. 1999’s Homeworld  and 2003’s Homeworld 2 were very different games, but Gearbox has done an admirable job in modernising their UIs, graphics, and controls to make them seem like a game in two parts.

Homeworld, in its day, was feted for its innovative three dimensional approach to real time strategy, but also for its involved lore and sweeping galactic scope. The narrative scaffolding of the campaign is a by-the-numbers space opera, with galactic empires, generations-long interstellar voyages, enigmatic alien civilisations, ancient relics from progenitor races long vanished, and a central quest for a lost home planet.

Honestly, it isn’t a particularly novel premise for a space opera. And the characters and plotlines, such as they are, are paper-thin abstractions, like the bare-bones elements for a coherent campaign than fully-fleshed elements for any literary purpose. But what this narrative structure does is provide the structure for gameplay moments that feel positively gravid with operatic importance.

A powerful example of that sort of feeling is in an early Homeworld mission, in which the mothership of the player-led Kushan species, built as an exploratory vessel to search for that species’ lost homeworld of Hiigara, returns back to their current planet to find it a burning, lifeless cinder, bombarded to oblivion by in a seemingly capricious act by a previously unknown antagonist. Adagio for Strings plays as the player surveys this almost existential ruin, keenly aware that the mothership is the last remnant of the Kushan species and culture.

The player finds that floating cryo-trays containing the cryogenically frozen would-be colonists for the expedition have survived the bombardment, and the mission is a race to collect the cryo-trays and return them to the safety of the mothership before the enemy finds and destroys them. The mission requires that 4 out of 6 pallets are returned to ensure success. But every time a pallet is destroyed, the player is told that 100,000 Kushan colonists have perished. By creating this moral and emotional impact through spare storytelling, the game turns the simple act of rescuing trays to succeed in a mission into an almost moral imperative.

Later on, as the player builds up a fleet and marshals huge capital ships and cruisers to bear on the enemy, you are still keenly aware that each loss of a ship is the loss of a significant proportion of the species’ people. Amidst the epic battles with clouds of fighters and capital ships slugging it out in the pastel beauty of the Homeworld cosmos, I found that I had the compulsion to play conservatively, in order to protect the Kushan people.

This narrative compulsion is also exacerbated by gameplay requirements, at least in the first Homeworld campaign – where resource scarcity and fleet persistence between missions ensured that the player had to play conservatively to ensure that as much of their fleet survived each mission to make it to the next. The campaign was cleverly constructed to emphasise this principle, not least in the use of salvage as an important mechanic. The best way to beat the campaign is to employ salvage corvettes to capture enemy vessels and convert them into player units, in keeping with the narrative of scarcity and privation in the face of the massive numerical advantage of the enemy.

Both the campaigns of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 contained this element – of narrative informing gameplay conditions and hence gameplay choices – but Homeworld was probably the better campaign. Resource scarcity was not an issue in Homeworld 2, and this led to missions devolving into epic engagements of attrition with the enemy. Homeworld 2’s plot was also a little bit less compelling than the first, with the plot embracing more mystical, macguffin-powered elements that departed from the more stolid, primal themes of the original.

That said, Homeworld Remastered isn’t without its problems, mostly in the gameplay and mission design. Chief among these is the annoying enemy scaling system, in which the size of the enemy fleet scales with the size of your own. In the Homeworld campaign, I spent many hours painstakingly capturing ships and carefully building a huge fleet, only for the subsequent missions to quickly become impossible due to the size of the enemy fleet that grew commensurately to my own. It’s a state of affairs in which player effort is not rewarded by the satisfaction of bearing down on one’s opponent, but is instead punished by making missions impossibly difficult.

The AI in both games is also somewhat abysmal, like the computer was playing on autopilot. There is almost never any strategy to the enemy’s actions, just a series of pre-canned actions that the player just needs to memorise to beat. The computer can also be easily tricked by feints and other simple gambits, sending out their fleet in a disorganised stream to chase a single scout and perishing slowly in the grinder maw of the ambush you’ve set up. It feels less like outsmarting your opponent and more like what it is – exploitation of a very simplistic rules-based system once you know its few organising principles.

These are issues that have persisted through the remastering process, and feel a bit out of whack with more modern game design philosophies and tech. But, after everything, these problems pale in the face of the sense of import and anticipation I felt when playing the collection. Strategy has a certain way of seizing your thoughts away from the computer screen – I had moments doing everyday, real-world things where I suddenly found myself thinking of ways to tackle the next Homeworld mission, and finding myself in anticipation of going home to try out my gambit. In a way relatively few games have, Homeworld has that slightly addictive element to it, one that compounds itself with its narrative-driven gameplay to provide a classic space opera RTS experience that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 ion frigates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is your classic attempt to burst the utopian bubble of the happily-ever-after, one that will leave many unsatisfied at how Harry’s life has panned out.

First, I have to qualify that penning down my thoughts on the script of a play necessarily does it a disservice. There is much to a theatrical production that the script doesn’t capture – the staging, performances, effects, and lighting – that provide a lot of the texture and nuance that is simply not present in the script – which is, after all, just dialogue and a few notes about the scene.

That said, if Cursed Child is the canonical continuation of Harry Potter’s story, then we are justified in talking about how that story pans out.

Cursed Child is very much a product of its theatrical medium. It takes advantage of its closeness to the audience to accentuate its themes of friendship, familial discord, youthful rebellion against the legacy of one’s parents, the seductiveness of rash action under the guise of good intentions.

In a sense, it is interested in saying things about those themes, under the hood of its steadfastly Potteresque content matter. But in doing so, it tells us that even the heroes of yesterday’s epic can be revealed to be flawed, failing humans when their stories are told through the perspective of a new medium.

This may disappoint some, because the mode of storytelling featured in Cursed Child is different from the books. While the books could – and did – get dark at times, heroism was still the order of the day, good triumphs over evil by dint of love, and the forces of good were by and large noble.

Cursed Child doesn’t quite deconstruct all that – the basic elements are still there – but it does put a dampener in that legacy in the service of telling a tale more focused on the human foibles of its protagonists, rather than their inherent heroism. Even though, at the end, heroism wins the day, what sticks with us is the disjunct between the books – which by now are a nostalgic memory – and the washed-out present.

As adults, the Harry Potter children find themselves making the same mistakes as their imperfect role models before them. Harry Potter has a strained relationship with his son, Albus, partly due to Albus resenting living in his father’s giant shadow, and partly because of Harry’s inability to understand what drives his son, who has departed from the straight and narrow path of the Potter legacy by being sorted into Slytherin. Draco’s own son, Scorpius, has a similar problem – he’s a mild mannered and good-natured sort, antithetical to the established Malfoy brand. The two misfits find friends in each other, but in doing so, they become outsiders, shunned by the very types of people from whom heroes would have been wrought in the original books.

Indeed, the play does manage to interrogate a lot of what we took for granted in the book series – criticisms that a lot of readers have started to see as they grow up. Wizarding society – and Hogwarts in particular – might have been a source of simple escapism for many younger readers of the franchise – but it has its problems. The sorting system, for example, propagates patterns of injustice and factionalism based on essentialist traits. Hogwarts itself is a deathtrap, and Dumbledore negligently remiss in minding the safety of his charges. In the cold light of adulthood, these problems rear themselves in ways that dim the escapist magic of the original series.

Rowling’s subsequent works have shown her to be far more of a cynic than an idealist when it comes to human nature, and retooling Harry Potter for a more adult sensibility will invariably introduce that dynamic to the Potterverse.

If the tenor of the plot is a bit bereft of the magic of the books, its story beats can seem somewhat rehashed. This is because the plot is essentially about time travel – Albus going back in time, unknowingly changing the events of the books, and the audience gets to see how things could have panned out differently. This works for thematic reasons because it lets us revisit past events and explore what-ifs and could-have-beens in an introspective fashion that creates new texture for the original books. It’s also way to explore alternate selves – which really shows up how circumstances shape personality.

But in terms of premise, this seventh entry can seem unnecessarily fiddly with the existing canon, trivialising it somewhat due to the fact that life and death can be so easily altered with just a click of the time-turner. It’s also a bit regressive, insofar that the plot isn’t forward looking, but reflective of the conflicts of the past – a bit of a coda to the series rather than a new adventure in its own right, featuring a new generation. And in frames the central conflict in terms of the legacy of Voldemort, a conceit that might seem unoriginal insofar as we’re still dealing with the fallout caused by that particular dark lord.

So, while Cursed Child is, I think, a good lens by which to interrogate the Potterverse, it doesn’t quite advance the story in a way that sparks the same sense of wonder and imagination as the books. But I suspect that’s not its intention – it is a coda, a bookend, and is a thematic piece rather than one that, on the outset, develops the franchise or sets it up for continuation.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 Dumbledore portraits

 

Doctor Strange

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Doctor Strange is yet another case of Marvel’s tried-and-true formula scaffolding a daring and visually arresting foray into one of its more esoteric properties.

Like many Marvel origin stories, Doctor Strange is about self-renewal. A A talented but flawed protagonist experiences a life crisis that forces them to confront their hubris and in doing so reforges them into an unlikely hero. Iron Man was like this. So was Thor and to a lesser extent, Ant-Man. It’s a formula that has produced characters like Han Solo  and Bilbo Baggins. And as far as origin stories go, you can do far worse than with a dependable formula for your hero’s inception.

Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the role of brilliant neurosurgeon turned sorcerer Stephen Strange with the arrogant aplomb that carried him to fame in Sherlock. Save for the occasional missteps in his accent, he carries the film with the thespian certitude of one who has lived in the character’s brainspace for a long time.

Strange, the fast-car driving, expensive watch-wearing douche-doctor, gets into a car accident that renders the tools of his delicate trade – his hands – useless. During his quixotic quest for a cure, he stumbles across a possible panacea – but it takes him down a very different path, one that leads to the world of mysticism, far removed from the material world that he is used to. And, of course, he gets some character development.

By now, citing the ways in which Doctor Strange ticks off the checklist of Marvel movie qualities is getting old hat. The quips feature in spades. Extradimensional antagonists defeated by cleverness and plot-hacks. A constant self-awareness of the narrative’s outlandish comic book origins. Trope-blind antagonists.

On that last point, Marvel really needs to up its villain game. Antagonists (barring Loki and a handful of other compelling figures) have often been the weakest part of the Marvel formula. While they’re always being motivated by something, those motivations are often flimsily constructed and one-dimensional. It’s like the Marvel writers consulted the manual on how to write compelling villains and interpreted it in too literal a fashion.

Baddie Kaecilius, for example, is motivated by eternal life – and it’s hinted that he does what he does motivated by some personal tragedy. But – not only does he kill and maim in that quest to make us all eternal thralls to a giant ravenous dark being from outside spacetime (and – I mean – an eternity of torment is not preferable to a non-eternity of the status quo, guys) he also gets dark smouldering circles around his eyes. Maybe that should set off alarm bells that you’re maybe not one of the good guys?

The movie also sets up another big antagonist in the Doctor Strange continuity, and his motivations for becoming the way he is are also, in a word, risible.  It’s like antagonists in the Marvel Universe don’t understand the concept of compromise. It’s a very Dubyaesque approach to ethics and morality.

Besides that, however, the film is one of the most visually interesting Marvel films to date, just because it uses psychedelia and Inception-like visuals as its main bread-and-butter to paint a world of sorcery that is ties in intimately to notions of the Marvel multiverse. Stranges’ own psychedelic trip into the multiverse is one of the film’s best sequences – both awe-inspiring and somewhat self-aware at its own ridiculousness at the same time.

One other thing Doctor Strange has been accused of is whitewashing and white savior tropes. Stephen Strange, the white man, comes to Nepal and becomes its most gifted practitioner, and saves the world from the hubris of its own sorcerous protectors. Now, while I sympathise with the sentiment that there should be more Asian representation in film, I don’t really see how the film might have done it better.

In a sense, the film is caught in a bind because it is trying to modernise what is essentially an old, somewhat racist comic series that emerged in a less enlightened time. I applaud the filmmaker’s decision to make the lodge of sorcerers into what seems to be a multiethnic enclave that just happens to be situated in Kathmandu. In that context, it is sensible to make the Ancient One someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of an elder of such an institution – a Celtic woman instead of the original depiction of an old Nepalese dude with a flowing beard, which might be its own ethnic stereotype.

And the decision to make the lodge multi-ethnic takes the teeth out of the white-savior charge, because the lodge is no longer a feckless organisation that needs saving from the outside.

Whitewashing is most egregious when white actors are used to tell uniquely Asian stories – such as when Scarlett Johansson is cast as the Major in the very Asian Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone is cast as a half-Asian woman in Aloha. In this case, though, Doctor Strange the movie is no longer telling a particularly Asian story – because to make the sorcerer’s lodge an Asian institution is to exoticise it.

And with that expostulation on a storm on a teacup, I conclude with the general observation that Marvel films, while formulaic on story beats, have one of the most creative and daring premises – something that is only made possible by the brand that they have so painstakingly built with their dependability.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 eyes of Agamotto