Mary Poppins Returns

Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: David Magee


As far as childhood classics go, Mary Poppins isn’t one that I would rank amongst my most cherished. I certainly watched it enough times as a kid and I know it had some kind of lasting effect on me because, despite having never watched it as an adult, I can still picture it clearly in my mind and recall how most of the songs go. Maybe on some level I, like the Banks children, felt like I got what I needed from Poppins at the time when I needed it and that the next time I saw her wouldn’t be until I needed her again. Or maybe I just never got round to it because I was too busy rewatching Star Wars for the umpteenth time. In either case the long-awaited Mary Poppins sequel, which even over fifty years after the original film’s release was probably as inevitable as the Disney Company’s eventual conquest and dystopian, totalitarian dominance of all media and culture is in the near future, wasn’t something that I felt the world or I really needed. Still that’s never stopped Hollywood before so in swoops the magical nanny in the Banks family’s hour of need once again to offer her services as a caretaker, deliver some sage advice and sing a few catchy tunes.

Decades have gone by since her previous visit and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now adults living together in Interwar England with Michael’s three children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). The Banks family has fallen onto hard times since the death of Michael’s wife and the grieving residents of 17 Cherry Tree Lane are in danger of losing their home. Michael, unable to support his children as an artist, has had to take a job at the bank where his father worked but that alone won’t be enough unless he can find the certificate proving their ownership of the late Mr. Banks’ shares. Enter Mary Poppins (who, despite now looking like Emily Blunt, hasn’t aged a day) armed with her talking parrot umbrella and TARDIS handbag to offer her help in this desperate time. She gets to work immediately with the children and leads them on a whimsical, musical adventure as she imparts upon them such lessons as the necessity of doing their chores, the importance of good manners and, most importantly, how the death of their mother doesn’t mean that her memory and spirit are lost to them. Following them on this journey is local cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Assuming the role created by P.L. Travers and made iconic by Julie Andrews, the always delightful Blunt delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Poppins. Walking that very fine line between being playful but serious, fanciful but elegant, and tender but stern, she manages to evoke and capture the very essence of the maturely childish (or childishly mature) and enchanting nanny in the vein of Andrews without imitating her. She makes the character her own, bringing this knowing smile and sly wink which never betray a thing as she maintains her graceful, dignified composure throughout, remaining at all times as unknowable and imperceptible as Willy Wonka or Totoro. Her performance is an astonishing achievement considering that the film allows her far too few opportunities to actually distinguish herself from her 1964 counterpart and carve out her own path. Nearly every plot development and diversion that occurs is so blatantly a rehash of something that happened in the first film that this purported sequel might as well be a remake. Mary leads the kids into an animated realm where musical hijinks with cartoon animals take place, heads out to meet an eccentric relative for a gravity-defying kerfuffle, and then her working class industrial sidekick launches into a lively song-and-dance number about his profession. It’s only by virtue of Blunt’s uncanny ability to elevate whatever material is handed to her that this incarnation of Poppins feels at all distinct from the one we know.

For a movie that so enthusiastically champions the wonders and possibilities of the imagination, the gratification of learning to see something from a different perspective and the delight and relief that can be found through escapism, Mary Poppins Returns is pretty unimaginative, formulaic and unadventurous. Despite all the time that’s gone by, this new movie feels like it’s trapped in the past and is desperately unable to move forward in any meaningful way, opting to instead retread familiar ground and revisit themes and ideas that the 1964 film already did an adequate job exploring. In the first film, the Banks family weren’t in any particularly sorry state but they all, the father especially, needed Mary Poppins in their lives so that they could be reminded of all the things that truly mattered. For a moment it seems like the second movie go a step further by showing how imagination and good-spiritedness can be used for more than fun and affection, they can be used as a source of comfort and healing in dark times and a means of understanding and solving our greatest worries. That would have been a great moral for the film to teach but it never follows through on that idea. Instead the movie’s lesson seems to be that if you worry less about your real world problems and seek amusement and distraction where you can, those problems will end up solving themselves.

This might not be a huge issue for me if the movie hadn’t done such a good job of establishing the woes of the Banks family and how badly they need a miracle like Mary Poppins to arrive on their doorstep. Usually when a children’s movie has an absent parental figure, it’s a cheap way of scoring some easy sympathy points while saving them the trouble of having to include an additional (usually female) character in their story. Here, the loss of the mother is a constant source of pain and despair for the family and the struggle to cope and move on together is one that the film is actually interested in exploring. There’s a very affective scene where Whishaw sits alone in the attic singing about his beloved where, even though I’m normally not a fan of non-singers being made to perform in musicals, his unpolished vulnerability is just right to get the tears flowing. With this and the additional trouble of the bank threatening to repossess their house, it seems to me that the last thing Michael and the kids need is to be distracted by cartoon musical extravaganzas and dancing lamplighters. They need solutions and fast. Having Poppins fly in to offer a few light-hearted diversions and then presenting the solution that the family needs in the form of a Deus-ex-Machina just doesn’t sit very well with me. It doesn’t feel whimsical, it just feels lazy.

Maybe this is the result of having a fantasy movie where the best scenes tend to take place in the real world. As with the original Mary Poppins this movie is jam-packed with musical sequences, yet few of the new songs that are featured are very memorable. It might not seem fair to say that when you consider that the songs from the first film such as ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ have had decades to cement their place in the public’s consciousness, but these are all songs that I remember quite well despite not having watched the film in years. In this case I can barely hum half the songs from the movie’s soundtrack. It’d be one thing for the songs to be unremarkable if their performances were at least fun to watch, but Marshall’s insistence on constantly cutting between wide shots, close ups and reaction shots without framing them in any imaginative way or letting them last long enough for the viewer to really appreciate the extravagance of the sets or the talent on display in the dance choreography puts a stop to any of that. The welcome exception is in the porcelain bowl escapade where Blunt, Miranda and their cartoon animal friends perform a vaudeville piece called ‘The Cover is Not the Book’, the catchy chorus of which does keep returning to my head. That whole sequence is a fun-filled romp where live-action and 2D animation compliment each other in all the right ways and that even manages to put Miranda’s rapping skills to the test as he goes on an elaborate tangent in his Dick Van Dyke cockney accent.

Overall, Mary Poppins Returns is little more than a mostly derivative, sometimes charming and occasionally fantastic distraction. Like half of Disney’s live-action output, it’s a movie that seeks to profit on the back of the nostalgia its title and premise inspire, but there’s a difference between reviving or reinventing a story and recycling it. There’s a way to revisit old stories and compliment, reflect and expand on them without going through the same motions all over again in such a way that it feels like nothing at all has changed and you needn’t have bothered. Disney did it before in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel that followed the same basic story beats as A New Hope, but did so in order to establish a familiar continuity from which they could launch a new story with new characters and to demonstrate the way in which history repeats itself and stories and legends reverberate over time. Here it just feels like Marshall and screenwriter Magee followed the exact same story as before because they couldn’t come up with any better ideas. While it is able to recapture the wondrous past for a few fleeting moments, that it’s constantly looking backwards is the reason why it will never be a classic in its own right.

★★★

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A Quiet Place

Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

Director: John Krasinski

Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski


This is a great concept for a horror film. The world has undergone some great disaster and is now overrun by fearsome aliens/monsters who stalk the land preying on human beings. The beasts are completely blind but have enhanced hearing, allowing them to pick up sounds from miles away. The human survivors must therefore live their lives in a state of eternal dread as any sound they make could get them killed. What I love about this concept is that (1) it necessarily requires the film to be creative in its use of visuals and sound when conveying the story and (2) it invites the viewer to actively take part. The film is so good at establishing the terror of sound that the entire audience ends up undertaking its own vow of silence, hesitant to make so much as the slightest peep for fear of summoning the creatures. It is one thing to be frightened as an individual, the collective sense of anxiety that this film was able to inspire is really something else, which is why it pays to see A Quiet Place in the cinema.

Caught up in this silent nightmare are husband and wife Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). They’ve managed to get by together as a family for the most part, largely due to their fluency in sign language, a by-product of Regan’s deafness. Through tragedy and trauma they’ve been able to achieve what could charitably be called ‘normalcy’ in a world as frightening and deadly as this. They walk place to place on bare feet along paths made of sand, they play board games where the plastic playing pieces have been replaced by paper cut-outs, and they hold hands in silent solidarity during mealtimes. This status quo however is a tremendously precarious one and there are forces at work that threaten their very survival. Most worryingly, Evelyn is several weeks pregnant and the day when she will have to give birth (a difficult enough task without any doctors or anaesthetic at hand, never mind the noise problem) is surely approaching. Through all the dread and trepidation, Lee works tirelessly on securing their hideout and unearthing what means he can of combatting the frightful predators, intent on keeping his family safe whatever the cost.

Cinema has a rich legacy of horror-survival stories with fearsome monsters from the xenomorph in Alien to the Thing in The Thing to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and Krasinski makes his contribution to the genre with the worthy confidence of a veteran horror director. He is precise and economic in his storytelling, with seldom a shot that does not contribute in some way to the scares, the emotional stakes, or the world around these characters. When we’re at the farm where the bulk of the movie takes place, Krasinski takes care to ensure that the geography is never lost on us. We are constantly aware of where everybody is, how far they are from each other, and who can see or hear what. He is also very good in his use of foreshadowing, more so because of the auditory nature of the storytelling. There are certain objects, most notably an exposed nail in the floor and a literal Chekhov’s gun, that inspire anxiety in their silence because we know that they will come into play at some point near the end and that the result will be exactly the kind of noise we’ve been conditioned to dread. What’s more, in a world where a loud and abrupt noise means almost certain death, the use of the jump scare is actually justified, although even then Krasinski takes care not to exploit that advantage for all its worth. He understands that horror isn’t really about trying to scare the audience, it’s about making them fear for the characters and he never loses sight of that simple notion.

Through a nuanced understanding of the visual language of cinema and the strong, expressive performances of the cast, we are able to identify with this family and feel for them throughout their ordeal. Starring opposite Krasinski is real-life wife and mother of his children Emily Blunt and the bond they share as spouses and parents is powerfully felt in every scene they share. In a movie that deals heavily with the idea of a family working together to keep each other safe, secure, and alive, the most vital ingredient to make it all work is that feeling of familial affection. The movie understands this and works harder to convey that feeling to us than it does with any other element, a move that pays off splendidly. The two children also deserve praise in this regard, especially the actually deaf Simmonds who, as well as having to deal with the same problems of being unable to express herself through noise, must also deal with the obstacle of being unable to hear the danger in any given moment, a source of both anxiety and even guilt for her. The most remarkable thing about any of these performances though is how intense they are given how controlled they necessarily have to be. In this world, none of these characters have the luxury of grunting in anger, sobbing in despair, or screaming in fear. The silence that defines their lives is as oppressive as it is terrifying and the actors do a marvellous job of conveying the agony of living without giving in to these basic human impulses.

That repression of the human condition is ultimately what makes A Quiet Place such a scary film. It’s not just the fear of being eaten by creepy aliens/monsters, it’s the torment of living in a world where a vital part of what makes us human has been taken away. We live in such a noisy world that it’s difficult to conceive of a life of total silence. We use sound to express ourselves and to reach out to others; we even use it when we’re on our own because we find that the mere presence of sound can somehow make us feel less alone. Many of the great horror films are about taking a fundamental part of our nature and weaponising it against ourselves, forcing us into a realm where we must adapt into lesser versions of ourselves in order to survive. If the characters are able to overcome the threat, we feel empowered; if they are defeated by it, we feel despondent. Either way we are deeply affected by what we’ve seen. A Quiet Place is one of the most profoundly affective horror films of recent years and it is truly a cinematic experience to behold.

★★★★★

The Girl on the Train

Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson


This is a film that has garnered a lot of comparisons with Gone Girl, leading many to dismiss The Girl on the Train as the lesser of the two. Both of these movies are suburban thrillers detailing the dark or even sinister secrets that lurk beneath the everyday facades these characters wear. Both mysteries are focused on the sudden disappearance of a beautiful, blonde suburban housewife. Both films play around with time and perspective. Both films share a similar tone and visual style. Both stories are based on bestsellers written by women. Maybe this film is intentionally trying to replicate what Fincher and Flynn did with their film to attain that same level of acclaim, or maybe it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that Gone Girl happened to be made two years earlier. Although I do think this film possesses positive qualities that make for a good movie, they were sadly not enough to make me forget that it’s been done before and it’s been done better.

Every day Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes to the city on a route that takes her directly past the neighbourhood where she used to live. There she can see her old house where her ex-husband Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) lives with his mistress-turned-wife Anna Boyd (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new-born daughter. During her trips Rachel becomes increasingly fascinated with the house three doors up where the alluring Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) lives with her husband Scott (Luke Evans). Seeing them together in the briefest of glimpses, Rachel fantasies about what a perfect marriage they must have while she drowns her own sorrows in the bottle. This fantasy is then shattered when Rachel spots Megan kissing another man on her balcony. Enraged and inebriated, she resolves to confront Megan before blacking out and awakening in her bedroom with an injured head. When it is revealed that Megan has since gone missing and has been presumed dead, Rachel’s erratic behaviour makes her the top suspect in Detective Riley’s (Allison Janney) investigation.

In comparing these two films I found myself recalling a forgettable sci-fi movie I once saw called The Thirteenth Floor, a film about a virtual reality. It had a fascinating concept and impressive (for the time) visuals but was ultimately a victim of its clumsy writing and inexpert direction. Its biggest weakness though was that it happened to come out just a couple of months after The Matrix. In a nutshell, that’s kind of how I feel about this film. The Girl on the Train could be intriguing at times and has a strong leading lady in Blunt, but the issues it suffers from keep it far from attaining greatness. When compared to Gone Girl, this film is dead in the water. The film’s underlying mystery is a whodunit (in contrast to Gone Girl which is more of a howdunit or whydunit) with a ‘who’ that is pretty easy to guess. The real story is of three women and the fears and flaws they suffer that drive the action that occurs, but these women aren’t as complex or as compelling as the film clearly wants them to be. The direction Taylor brings is pretty standard and never surprises, not even in the surprise twist when we learn that things are not the way we’ve been led to believe. Thus the suspense, the captivation and the artistry that made Gone Girl such a great watch is either lacking or absent as far as this film is concerned.

Blunt puts everything she has into her performance and it definitely counts for a lot. She plays a wretched, severely alcoholic woman punishing herself day after day for the shambles that was her marriage. She is a miserably lonely creature, staring longingly through the window towards this seemingly perfect life that has been lost and denied to her. She recalls memories of how her marriage to Tom was wrecked by her excessive drinking and his infidelity and jumps back and forth between inconsolable despair and antagonistic rage. Blunt is able to be both subtle and outrageous when the script calls for it and single-handedly makes this film. If only the other two women were half as compelling. One is a bored housewife looking for an escape. The other is a bored housewife looking for passion. The two women, along with their husbands, are so nondescript as characters that I could only remember who was who through face recognition alone.

Still, when it comes right down to it, I can’t say that The Girl on the Train was a bad film. It has a complicated and engaging character at its helm played superbly by a marvellous actress. While I wasn’t particularly interested in the story or its mystery, I was invested to the extent that I wanted to see Rachel pick herself up, get her act together, and turn out all right. If the film had the gripping sense of pace, the captivatingly ambiguous tone or the wonderfully astute camerawork of Gone Girl, then we might have had the suspenseful suburban thriller that the writer and director were clearly going for. In a universe where Gone Girl didn’t exist perhaps the issues I had with The Girl on the Train would not have been so glaring. The reality though is that no movie exists in a vacuum. The comparison between these two films is as appropriate as it is inevitable and the difference in quality is clear. Everything this film does badly, the other does well. Everything this film does well, the other does better.

★★★

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon, Jessica Chastain

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. This is the tale of a princess who possesses magical powers that allow her to manipulate ice and snow. An accident involving these powers leads her to isolate herself from the world and from her sister in a self-imposed exile. She flees far away into the mountains where she creates her own kingdom with a palace made of ice an- No, really. This all happens in the first five minutes of the movie. I could probably spend all day highlighting the similarities with Frozen and even longer outlining the reasons why it is a far superior film to Winter’s War. The former has lovable characters, enjoyable comedy, a terrific soundtrack and a moving story about love and the bond between two sisters whereas the latter does not. It’s Frozen without any of the things that made it good. Those have all been replaced by a myriad of subplots and a dreary tone that serve to create a messy movie almost completely void of feeling and enjoyment.

Before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) was the sister of Freya (Emily Blunt), a princess with ice powers who kills her love upon being betrayed by him. She flees into exile and creates her own kingdom with an army of huntsmen. Her two best warriors are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) who share a secret romance in violation of Freya’s laws. Freya learns of their affection and sees to it that it ends in tragedy. Seven years later (after the events of Snow White), King William (Sam Claflin) tracks down the Huntsman and informs him that Ravenna’s magic mirror has been stolen. Believing the mirror poses a threat to Queen Snow White (not Kristen Stewart) he requests Eric to find the mirror and recover it. Eric sets out on this quest with the two dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) and ends up on a path that brings him in direct conflict with his past.

This sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel that nobody really asked for and that does not even include the protagonist from the first movie is a mess. It features a dynamic relationship between two royal sisters both of whom are villains, a forbidden love between the two huntsmen, the threat of a war against Snow White’s kingdom (without Snow White), the dwarves who are each given their own romantic subplots and the various divergences that take place as Eric and his party attempt to find the magic mirror. Jumping between these stories might have been more tolerable had I been able to find one of them engaging, but I didn’t. I would have loved to have seen a film about two villainous sisters facing each other, especially with these two actresses playing them, but what this film did was just so dull and unenjoyable. Neither Blunt nor Theron were diabolical enough to be fun or menacing enough to be threatening. Whatever my issues with Maleficent, at least Jolie was clearly having fun with the character. The problem with this film is that it takes itself too seriously for any fun to be had without being either strong or compelling enough to be taken seriously.

Snow White and the Huntsman did receive two Oscar nominations for costume design and visual effects, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were the high points of the prequel/sequel. The film does feel like it takes place in a world of creatures and enchantment and manages to look pretty convincing for the most part. The action scenes however are wholly uninspired and utterly lacking in investment or tension. As a costume designer Colleen Atwood has excelled in this genre time and time again and this film is no exception. It is through her work that Blunt and Theron are both able to look the part, even if they don’t act it. The performances are pretty humdrum with the only real surprise being Sheridan Smith as a feisty, foul-mouthed dwarf. Chastain’s attempt at a Scottish accent is good for a few laughs but otherwise there isn’t much to enjoy.

I wasn’t a fan of Snow White and the Huntsman but at least that film kept its focus where it was needed and offered something that was a little different from what had come before. Winter’s War has no focus to speak of and has nothing new or original to offer. It is dull, clichéd, predictable, derivative, drab and lifeless. Although the visuals and costumes remain impressive, you won’t really get anything out of them that you cannot get from watching the first film. It’s just a prequel/sequel that had no reason to exist and no idea of what to do with itself, so it just decided to draw ideas from Disney’s most profitable product and hire a few bankable stars to sell it. I don’t know if the decision to leave Kristen Stewart out was the studio’s or her own but, either way, she’s better off. To anyone interested in seeing this film, my advice is to give it a miss and just rewatch Frozen instead.

Sicario

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Sicario is an interesting example of how a film with a mostly one-note story and mostly one-note characters can be elevated in the hands of a skilled director. The narrative itself is not particularly remarkable or even memorable but the film does such a good job of depicting it that it somehow becomes captivating to watch. This isn’t to say that Sicario is a badly written film. It has some good lines, some interesting characters and a coherent story. It’s just that the story as a whole is quite unexceptional and would likely have made for a generic film in the hands of a generic director. However, through beautiful cinematography, subtle editing and the clever use of sound and lighting, Villeneuve was able to transform the film into a compelling thriller ripe with tension. I may not remember the ins and outs of the story and how it unfolds but I do remember being thrilled as it happened.

The film takes place within the context of the US-Mexican drugs war where FBI agent Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic agent with a strong moral code, is tired of the nominal raids she conducts that fail to make even the slightest dent in the Mexican cartel drug economy. She is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the leader of a government task force, to take the fight where it really matters so that she might make a real difference in the escalating drugs war. Kate soon finds herself exasperated by the unorthodox methods the task force employs and by constantly being kept in the dark. Most vexing of all is having to take her orders from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), an agent with a mysterious past whose brutal and violent approach weighs heavily on her conscience. As Kate attempts to uncover the truth about what this task force is really doing and really trying to accomplish, she falls deeper into a world of darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf her.

Again this story is not particularly noteworthy or outstanding. However I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to talk about del Toro as the fascinatingly furtive Alejandro. The way that he inflicts these cruel, ruthless methods with a cold, uncompromising gaze and a callous, deadpan expression is astonishing to behold. His character becomes all the more captivating to watch as we learn more and more about him and he leaves what is by far the film’s most memorable impression. Blunt as the protagonist does well enough to start with but becomes less and less interesting as the film progresses. Her arc as a naïve, inexperienced agent gradually coming to understand the contorted nature of the mission she has signed up for becomes less compelling as her character fails to exhibit any sign of growth. The lack of development or a refined personality meant that the actions and decisions of her character became more of a chore to follow as my interest diminished.

However the real star of this film is the direction. Villeneuve compensates for the film’s misgivings by having the film shot and constructed in a way that enhances the story. Not only is the cinematography beautiful to look at but also it is employed to communicate information and build tension in ways that other films of this kind do not. One scene near the film’s climax comes to mind where, without giving too much away, a massive raid is conducted and shot in a way that draws the viewer right into the action while still allowing a strong degree of subtlety and subdued tension. This is aided by the skilful way the film edits these scenes and the keen intuition and attention to detail that the film demonstrates through its use of sound. The sound of shells hitting the ground as Alejandro fires his silent pistol adds just as much to the conflict of any given scene as it does to the film’s authenticity. Therefore through artistry and skill the director and his crew were able to transform what could easily have been a standard run-of-the-mill thriller into so much more.

However, for all that this director was able to accomplish through creative ideas and clever techniques, this film is still far from perfect. The story is still quite uninspired and the characters fairly forgettable. It is mainly through the proficient direction as well as the inclusion of del Toro’s brilliant character that Sicario was able to leave a lasting impression at all. Having said that it is nevertheless one thing for an unremarkable film to be well shot and well crafted and another thing altogether for the editing and the cinematography to actually enrich the story beyond what was initially written, something in which Sicario succeeds admirably. It is an accomplishment that deserves to be recognised and deserves to be praised. This film is a strong testament to the assertion that a film is only as good as its director. Denis Villeneuve as it turns out is a very good director indeed.

★★★★