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Only God Forgives (Radius-TWC) ★★★½
Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Let’s dismiss one misconception. This thing ain’t Drive leftovers, and although it may be difficult to NOT look for a quasi-sequel amongst the flooded red lights of Only God Forgives, you’re unlikely to find such a thing. While Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s minimalist aesthetic found ravishing success with Drive in 2011 (feel free to sing the praises of star Ryan Gosling, who upon being casted, handpicked Refn for the job), the release of his follow-up has received a stabbing wound of critical hate, not without the occasional praise of brilliance, but with a far more divisive general opinion (it received boos at Cannes, but a standing ovation by some audience members, as well).
While this is understandable due to the vast challenges of the film’s construction, audiences and critics seem to believe that the movie is meaningless, pretentious, arthouse dribble – a slow-moving, brutally violent piece of nothing. I understand … this isn’t an easy film to like. But it’s equally hard to ignore, not necessarily in ambition, but by the skill displayed in every frame of this maddening thriller. What it amounts to is simply something most won’t enjoy seeing. Oh well … I dug it.
Most aspects that were streamlined in Drive (which was based on a novel by James Sallis, and adapted by Hossein Amini) have been removed in favor of upping the ‘arthouse vs. genre film’ ante, displaying elements that mostly made Refn’s prior movie such an exciting work. In Only God Forgives, we are faced with intricate shot design, deliberate pacing, super-contrasted lighting, exceedingly saturated color schemes (Refn is partially color-blind; he can’t see mid-colors), little dialogue, a consistently-maintained atmosphere of terror, and brooding suspense that is sporadically unleashed as extreme violence. But most importantly, Refn’s use of cinematic language is simply unique. The way he conveys information to an audience is interesting. These are simple words to throw around in film criticism, but when applied to visual language, you know you’re in for something that will test you, and hopefully thrill you with ingenuity.
Only God Forgives has middling success. What Refn gives us here is obviously much closer to his own hand, more similar to the Mads Mikkelsen-led Valhalla Rising than say, recent efforts such as Drive (although Gosling remains the lead) or Bronson (which may be his finest work, co-written with Brock Norman Brock). The film may be partly what is claimed by those who hate it, but it is also partly that other thing … brilliant. It is also immensely, undeniable refreshing – the anti-summer popcorn flick. As soon as it was over I wanted to see it again, and for this time of year, that means something. You can make the claim that this is ugly, artsy trash, but it certainly isn’t disposable.
Its maker has claimed that the Bangkok-set film (the on-location setting doing wonders for the movie’s atmosphere) is comparable to a Western, with a ‘modern cowboy hero’ becoming intertwined in a Far East revenge story. In Drive, Gosling gave a superbly restrained performance as such a hero, the unnamed ‘driver’ who must withhold his dreams for a normal life in favor of such a resonant niche. Gosling’s performance here can barely even be called restrained – it’s minimalist to the extreme. He wears the same expression for most of the film, shielded tension building up within him until it is unleashed at select moments.
In doing so, he fulfills Refn’s own niche for the character; I wouldn’t necessarily call Julian, a boxing club owner who fronts drug dealing, a ‘cowboy hero’ in the assumed sense; his revisionist ‘man with no name’ character actions are rarely fueled by blind courage or abilities, and he does not simply ‘wander on’ after they are completed. There are moments when the so-called dangerous American certainly does redemptive things, but for the most part, he has no greater calling, and although pressured in the opposite direction, rarely partakes in sacrifice that isn’t for the sake of his own life or peace of mind.
This might be his own form of revenge or a plague of weakness, but either way, he is no ‘driver.’ He might be good at something, but he is far more dangerous for what he is not good at. This is because he reflects such self-consciousness within his choices, by which nobody surrounding him is safe, except for the force he begins to realize cannot be beaten. Is this, essentially, Julian breaking free of his life-long tie to the devil? Seeking penance, perhaps, from the only ‘god’ present within this hallucinatory nightmare?
The film’s title, through little interpretation, tells you that no person forgives, and that is certainly true in a spiritual sense; the movie’s only sense of forgiveness is taken in blood. I won’t explain too much else about the narrative, other than the fact that Kristin Scott Thomas is terrific as Julian’s mother, who manipulates he and his brother with an odd, sexual power and ‘mob momma from hell’ mentality; meanwhile, the main antagonist to the family (insinuated by a rather brutal, early series of events) becomes Lieutenant Chang, the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ (Vithaya Pansringarm), a god-like police enforcer who uses a samurai sword to enact justice over the domain he considers his own.
While also taking inspiration from a like-brand of Asian revenge moviemaking, Only God Forgives, in many ways, follows the mantra of many horror films, as well. Terror slowly builds (aided by Cliff Martinez’s terrifically haunting score, which pretty much sounds as you would expect) until it is unleashed as violence. Going back to the movie’s visual construction, the story here is told mostly through the poignancy of the long-held images themselves, and their juxtaposition within chosen sequences, which usually blend multiple locations, periods of time, and perceptions of reality (at least from Julian’s point-of-view). Characters often loom in the center of the frame; there are also few scenes not shrouded in shadow or crimson light.
This isn’t remarkably entertaining or engaging entertainment, and its artistry doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the sheer craftiness of it, or explore new depths with unprecedented profundity. Many will also find moments silly and ridiculous, but as Refn has said, the film exists within a heightened reality. It’s a dark fairly-tale land that audiences will find comparable to a depraved state they have never experienced, quite detached from reality and its inhabitants, but visualizing ideas and emotions that personify the most primal of human urges – the sexual and the violent. As Refn has also stated, art itself is an act of violence. The look and feel of Only God Forgives is an accomplishment in itself. The rest will come to those willing to stare it in the eyes and dare not look away, even when ‘nothing’ is happening.
Consider the movie its own form of hell, and Refn, its director, as the devil. Judgment is placed within the audience’s hands. So I suppose we all know where that places us – in the highest seat, looking down upon supposed humans, and wondering what possibly went wrong. The choice to forgive them is solely your own, an opportunity to play god in Refn’s sadistic fantasy world.
CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5
The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.) ★½
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
And people complain about Michael Bay. I instead blame Baz Luhrmann as Hollywood’s primary sucker of souls, grasping any material with the slightest bit of feeling or intellect and injecting his poisonous brand of superficiality. He reduces all performances, including that of the normally brilliant DiCaprio, into just another element in his cartoonish backdrop of New York in the Roaring Twenties, forgoing any attempt at drama by structuring The Great Gatsby as a series of montage-style, visually incoherent sequences that are edited together like rap videos (how fitting to have a Jay-Z soundtrack then) and strung together only by Maguire basically reading the novel.
It is a painfully literal adaptation, incorporating contemporary elements and eye-popping visuals that are desperate to please, depriving the source material of all poetry, and poorly executing all of the elements it could have easily utilized in its favor. Instead, for all it vomits onto the screen, Gatsby resembles little more than a wooden board; you feel nothing the entire time, and end up rather bored, yourself. In the end, one learns not the folly of living in the past and holding false value in things that shine. All you’ll want to do is put this film far behind you, and wonder how they thought something this shiny could possibly ring true.
CKEP’S VERDICT – 1.5/5
Iron Man 3 [3D] (Disney) ★★★½
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kinglsey
After a fairly entertaining, but equally lackluster sequel, Iron Man soars back with this follow-up to both the first two movies and Marvel’s Avengers outing. Excellent as usual, Downey leads the familiar cast through the occasionally choppy waters of plot incoherence (the Christmastime setting also raises some eyebrows), but arguably, this is one of the wittiest, most action-driven pieces of entertainment Marvel has ever released. It’s edgy, visually spectacular, and thanks to Black’s direction and co-writing, a dark action-adventure with successfully comic, even satiric elements.
I will say, however, that the problem of Mickey Rourke being under-utilized as a compelling villain in Iron Man 2 is not successfully remedied with Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, even with the placement of Guy Pearce’s character in the script. Like many elements in Iron Man 3, the execution feels just a bit weird. It seems determined to jump from one key moment to the next, the plot and editing sometimes feeling disoriented. Yet the film still seems more acceptable than its predecessor, which basically lay dead in the water. And for all it’s worth, the hyperactive package ends up being extraordinarily entertaining.
I do wish there could have been a bit more drama and feeling packed into the romance in peril that should’ve been closer to the movie’s core strength, but hey, it ends up being emotionally satisfying, and for all the explosions and ass-kicking (sometimes without Downey even in the suit) the series hasn’t lost its humanity or affinity for character. Robert Downey, Jr. became Tony Stark after likely the most turbulent period he will ever face in his life, and his attachment to that persona, like this movie, is still an infectious joy. For a fresh beginning to the comic-book studio’s next line of cash-grabbers, it starts things off marvelously.
CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5
Star Trek Into Darkness [IMAX] (Paramount) ★★★★
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch
To be frank, I rank J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek as one of the greatest blockbusters of the past few decades. Anyway you cut it, for Trekkers or first-timers, it really has the goods. So one could say that my expectations were quite high for this sequel. At least it’s a relief for Into Darkness to recognize the primary flaw behind its design – the Star Trek franchise is about exploration, discovery, adventure, and benefits/dangers to civilization that come from it, not simply action sequences that happen to be located in outer space. The film never stoops that low, but it occasionally teeters close to the line. Yet this Trek excuses itself through pure relevance in its place within the new series, by using such a structure to develop necessary character arcs. It shows that sometimes danger finds us at our most morally vulnerable, often in the form of individuals who serve ethically indefensible purposes.
And while the decision to once again focus the primary antagonist as a single man may be questionable, Benedict Cumberbatch does an exceptional job. Fans may be split on whether or not they appreciate the writers toying with popular plot elements of the franchise, but frankly, the execution is so well-done that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing less than an exceedingly thrilling, engaging, funny, and yes, dark follow-up to what I consider to be somewhat of a contemporary classic. I still love the cast beyond word, and the crew of the Enterprise, giving ever-terrific performances, surely earns our emotional investment more than ever before.
While the visuals may be terrific, those helming the Abrams franchise have continued to indicate that this is a character-driven series, and their developments are what make it work, and what immerse us even farther beyond the wonderful excitement that everything else in the film offers. While the plotting may be somewhat, umm … ‘illogical,’ audiences are likely to be pleased with how several layers are gradually unveiled, revealing the movie to be a tale of highly difficult decision-making in morally ambiguous times of distress, and how this effects the genuine relationships between humans (and half-humans). It may not be Trek’s original mission, but this a series being shown to the generation of a different world, and for what it offers, Into Darkness makes you hungry for more, and instills promise that the series will continue to explore beyond the reaches of its proven intelligence, spectacle, and heart.
CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5
New releases that I’ve caught in theaters from January through April, concluding with my favorite film of the year thus far.
Texas Chainsaw [3D] ★ 1/2
Hilariously perpetuating all the stereotypes of terrible horror film remakes/reboots (from shortening the title to pitifully attempting to make the villain sympathetic), this shabby effort to revamp the series is awfully two-dimensional. The only good part about it is glimpses from the original in the opening segment.
This Guillermo del Toro-produced horror flick is decently well-acted (hey there, Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and bathed in an excellent sensibility for neo-gothic tone and atmosphere. Unfortunately, the terribly constructed, credibility-lacking script tends to jut audiences out of the story with several giggles to spare; which is a real bummer, considering the scares often consist of little more than ‘gotcha’ moments.
Side Effects ★★★★
A wonderfully interesting thriller, marred only by one too many false endings and some irksome performances, directed by Steven Soderbergh and with a screenplay from his Contagion collaborator, Scott Z. Burns. The crafty script accompanies the now-perfected digital aesthetic from the prior, also including a contemporary Hitchcock vibe that introduces greater suspense, thematic intrigue, and genuine fun.
Oz the Great and Powerful [3D] ★★ 1/2
One cannot help but marvel at the virtual (and as a much-needed relief, occasionally practical) environments of this return to Oz, but we are also welcomed to the land of terrible casting, obnoxious characters, and people/actions that just don’t gel within a beyond trippy, 3D landscape that steals the show. It is spontaneously fun, but there’s no heart, mind, or courage here. The whole thing feels just a bit illogical, and entirely uncomfortable.
Spring Breakers ★★★★ 1/2
Harmony Korine grabs mainstream Hollywood by the balls with his dark, scathing satire on our fascination with party culture and our subconscious encouragement to corrupt the angelic, youthful figures (the Disney crowd, y’all) we hold on a higher pedestal. Featuring James Franco in his most hilariously unhinged performance, Korine sends a generation of young adult viewers straight to the hell it romanticizes.
Evil Dead ★★★ 1/2
Although it turns down the wit and vamps up the harshness of Sam Raimi’s horror saga, this quirky gorefest is still extraordinarily fun, despite the fact that it really presents nothing new. Good thing the raw terror, extreme violence, eccentric cinematography, and hilarious absurdity of it all is still just as effective. Hopefully, it lives to serve both fans and those who have never heard the name Bruce Campbell ever mentioned in non-ironic regard.
The Place Beyond the Pines ★★★★★
Precisely what modern filmmaking needs. Derek Cianfrance has proved himself as an extraordinarily capable storyteller, weaving through a three-act tale of fathers and their sons with tremendous performances from the lead players. Some may argue that the material is stretched too thin, yet it has the poetic soul of a Greek tragedy, construction reminiscent of great literature, and a dreamlike tone that meshes with deliberately straightforward dialogue, allowing the audience to hinge on climactic, yet inevitable moments, both those of searingly fast motorcycles and hidden whispers of conscience. This is an epic film with a remarkably independent aesthetic, and as just consequence, the emotional thrill ride it provides is a satisfying, unpredictable experience.
To the Wonder (2013) ★★★★ 1/2
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Magnolia Pictures)
It is an unfair assumption to read Robert Frost and expect Herman Melville. And as we come to define great poetry as a subdivision of literature, why do we not do the same for cinema? Sure, we can classify material as arthouse, experimental, or avant-garde, but the word “poetic” tends to personify a particular feeling aroused from specific styles of filmmaking, rather than coming to define that style itself. I say this because it has become quite clear that Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s only remaining poets. Using the example of Frost, which may cause those to cringe who are more familiar with his work than myself, we may come to expect character and storytelling within certain instances. But these elements are conveyed only through poetic conventions, rather than the dramatic ones we can expect from a great novelist such as Melville. Therefore, it becomes quite absurd that those familiar with Malick’s work, beginning with Badlands in 1973 and leaving off with The Tree of Life in 2011, walk into an art piece such as To the Wonder and expect a novel, rather than a poem.
Criticize Malick’s film all you want for a lack of character and storytelling development, but only do so if it fails to achieve these aspects through the poetic structure it ambitiously tackles. There are no dinosaurs here, but in a way, Terry has never been more abstract. Sure, The Tree of Life showed us the creation of the universe, but this was rooted in an experimental narrative that could be thematically understood to a somewhat large degree. To the Wonder possibly covers the least thematic ground of any Malick film, yet the approach taken has never been so gracefully unrestrained, so beautifully capable of visualizing emotion and spirit, so brutally truthful and longingly hopeful.
Ben Affleck, in a performance that redefines subtle, is simply a masculine presence; this is a character, yes, but more of a person than anything else. His little dialogue contributes to his dance within the beautiful landscape of life itself, darting in and out of love, hiding emotions and unexpectedly unleashing them. His place within the film is one that not many could play, yet this is not because of his conventional acting abilities. When the camera starts rolling in a Malick film, chances are, lines are not being read off a script before the lens; when ‘action’ is called, ‘acting’ is not an option – those in front of the camera simply have to be what the film requires of them. Olga Kurylenko plays the woman he falls in love with in Paris, while Rachel McAdams takes on the role of his childhood sweetheart. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem encapsulates the faith-worn priest who mirrors their struggles.
This all takes place within the gorgeously shot locations of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and The New World. Visual effects aside, the imagery is nearly as astonishing as the prior. Using almost entirely natural light, the equally natural world is displayed with remarkable beauty, nature clashing with the infallible shadows of our characters. Much of the film takes place in a secluded area of Oklahoma, an area seemingly open to the fields surrounding it, yet constricted by the emotional and spiritual conflicts between the characters. It almost feels as though Malick drops the characters within this miniature ecosystem and simply observes as human nature takes hold (an idea I also derived from Malick’s Days of Heaven). Yet their actions are not spelled out through transition scenes and elaborate motivations; they are instead conveyed through the rhythm of the editing, the actors’ body language, voiceover (cryptic in some instances, quite blunt in others), Hanan Townshend’s lovely score, and an incredible sense of visual juxtaposition.
Much of To the Wonder is told through French narration, and it is no surprise that the film feels more European than American in its construction, even more so than Malick’s other films (influence from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour immediately comes to mind). The film uses this to its advantage as it explores how some lands seem unavoidably foreign to those who have not been raised within them, much as some audience members will not be accustomed to Malick’s kaleidoscopic method of filmmaking. It also shows how those who share native lands may inevitably form a bond that cannot be easily severed, but also how this could provide false seductions equal to the allure of something foreign and different. This is captured through the beauty that Malick and Lubezki present on both continents, yet the otherworldly in each is shown with equal measure.
And thus, this is Malick’s greatest talent – enunicating the spirituality present within everyday occurrence, the divine nature in simply living one’s life. The story here is all of our stories rolled into one. Why then, does it feel like nothing we’ve ever seen, even if we are accustomed to Malick’s visual fetishes? Somehow, at least to me, it feels fresh every time. Possibly because we are new people every time we sit down in the theater; life does not play before our eyes as it once did.
The waning faith of Bardem’s priest signifies a marriage based less on love than the hope for love; the failure of our highest hopes due to factors that lie outside of the feelings we hold most dear. These feelings come not from ourselves, but from a greater power. Our decisions lie in how to act upon them. Our faith and love, whether in God or another person, can present the opportunity for one’s own vision of salvation.
To the Wonder was the last film that Roger Ebert reviewed, and it would be sinful if I did not admit here that he has inspired the way I write about cinema more than any other human being. His final paragraph reads, “There will be many who find [the movie] elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
So I suppose you can buy the whole “Malick is a poet thing,” or you don’t have to. Your choice. It is also your decision whether to like or dislike his films, be completely off-put by them or find them absolutely soul-enriching. But after reading that final review, the romantic in me can’t help but think of Ebert as a “soul in need.” Yet considering all I’ve read by the film critic about his peaceful views regarding death, that is probably untrue. And maybe some of us will never have such a feeling until we approach death ourselves, or maybe a fraction of people feel it all the time. All I know for sure is that Terrence Malick, never more self-assured with his process than in To the Wonder, gives us things that we sometimes don’t consciously understand we need. It couldn’t be more clear that some may not need what he supplies, but I feel as though I do, and as a viewer, that is enough.
Maybe more would embrace the content if they were able to become comfortable with the presentation. But that gentle, yet visceral “jolt” is part of the experience; it’s an immersive, sensory experience with sustenance for the heart and mind. It may not be what most viewers are looking for, but one never doubts that it is precisely what Terrence Malick wanted to share, despite how many hours of footage were shot. The feelings are there in the final cut, and they follow you outside of the darkness.
Consider this bit of voiceover from Bardem – “You shall love whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling; you shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.”
Prose or poetry? Combined with imagery and music, it becomes cinema, or rather, Terry’s vision of it. And if there is a single compliment that one cannot avoid giving him, it is that he has stayed true to it, and will likely never break until his body becomes free of the soul in need.
CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5
Spring Breakers (2013) ★★★★ 1/2
Written & Directed by Harmony Korine (A24)
If you were to have told me that the most compelling film of early 2013 would star Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, I would’ve asked you to stop trolling. But that, to use an overused internet term, is an accurate description of what indie filmmaker Harmony Korine has accomplished with his first “mainstream” movie, being marketed to the same audience that craves a romanticism of teenage debauchery in the blindingly stupid genre of Project X and 21 and Over, when in fact, it is an extremely dark satire of an equally tiresome pop culture, one that praises the primitive extremes we dream of throughout young adulthood. Many will be baffled, while Korine, meanwhile, cashes a substantial check for his film made with a mere $5 million.
What Spring Breakers essentially does is take the party-centric insanity viewers come to expect, turn it up to unprecedented extremes, and place it within a decisively artful piece of exploitation cinema. This is accomplished through snatching the young actresses that the filmmakers have devilishly stolen from Disney fare, manipulating them for an exploration of the overused “good girls gone bad” mantra, and instead of including them in a setting of the lighthearted escapism associated with such films, dropping them in a cinematic hell; a candy-colored funhouse of drugs, sex, alcohol, and soon enough, bullets that tear flesh and spill blood. The tone often feels reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is in part due to the unsettling, electronica score by Cliff Martinez, while as obligation, Skrillex and Britney Spears also make key contributions.
This music carries us through the shockingly hedonistic “spring break” of four college girls, who rob a diner in order to obtain enough cash for the greatest week of their lives. They are shallow and trashy, with the slight exception of Gomez as a churchgoing babe named Faith (you may now begin to see how this film gets its kicks). In fact, they seem so desensitized to party culture that the violent, way illegal “next step” seems like no big deal; knocking off a restaurant comes naturally, almost as if they have become so accustomed to the viewing of such material as Project X that it has now taken form in their own lives. They almost seem to recognize they are in a movie, and strut their “nothing is off limits” mentality for our own sick amusement.
And then James Franco, as a rapper/drug dealer/general gangsta named Alien who enters the scene, he takes this thing to a whole ‘nother level. Franco, disappearing behind dreadlocks and quite a few tats, is hysterical in one of the most transformative performances of his career. Even as the film descends from dark comedy into unremitted action-horror, the twisted humor provided by his character rings true throughout. Shot by Benoit Debie of Irreversible and Enter the Void, Korine’s film is quite the trip; a colorful, quick-cut, sometimes handheld, noisy, slomo-driven drug that never lets you come down. That said, much of the story is told through editing, montage-style sequences driving the narrative from place to place, rather than relying on traditional story elements, dialogue, and transition scenes. The girls’ meandering dialogue is often overlaid on top of the startling imagery, lines often repeated several times, bludgeoning into our heads the repetitive nature of a cultural rut our American youth has been subjected to – a spring break that we have yet to escape. The experimental nature of the film will no doubt confuse mainstream audiences, but as crazy as it may seem, that effect on several moviegoers is necessary in order for Korine’s project to work and have long-standing impact.
Spring Breakers is a film that finds ugliness in beautiful things, and beauty in things that are ugly; horror in comedy, and comedy in horror. By taking Barbie dolls and turning them into gun-toting minions of Satan, Harmony Korine has found a platform that is undeniable simple, yet is extraordinarily thought-provoking and fun. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but also rewarding for those willing to look past the surface of teasing hotties. It’s also damn cool. One would think that if these girls actually stopped to look around a bit more often, maybe they would find something about the world that they have been seeking in their never-ending quest for thrills; maybe, in effect, they could actually find something meaningful in themselves. Instead, Korine straps their ignorance into a roller coaster of the superficial, leaving audiences to wonder, and hopefully fear – has our culture actually gone this far?
CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5