Review: Giant (1956)

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People might come to Giant for James Dean. They might come seeking out the final film in George Stevens unofficial American Trilogy (including A Place in the Sun and Shane).  Maybe it’s even the promise of a sprawling epic of monumental length and scope that turns out to be both a blessing and a curse by most accounts.

But this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, despite all of this, is really a film about marriage and family in a world that’s constantly changing. Rock Hudson is a towering giant in his own right turning in a performance that works as quintessential Texan Jordan “Bic” Benedict. Elizabeth Taylor proves that far from a one-dimensional classical beauty, she has acting prowess as well delivering a spirited showing that gels with Hudson for the very fact that it often chafes against his characterization. Meaning they’re believable as husband and wife.

James Dean plays their marginalized ranch hand Jett Rink who is nevertheless treated well by Bic’s  hardy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) as well as Leslie while harboring a life long feud with Bic over the ensuing years.

Time turns this story into a battleground of two dueling giants. One a life long rancher of great stature. The other a modern figure blessed with a meteoric rise as an oil magnate. Their resentment carries through the generations as much as their differing fields reflect the sign of the times. The tectonics shift as the old guard of the Texas plains is replaced with a new breed of powerful men.

Of course, Dean’s performance is the stuff of legend and there’s an idiosyncratic, grumbling magnetism about it as only he could do. This isn’t Brando and it’s not even Monty Clift who previously played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’ earlier picture. It’s James Dean showcasing his personal flare.

The final moments of his “Last Supper,” after his subsequent rise to glory, are devastatingly pathetic. The mighty oil tycoon of Jetexas falls into utter disgrace crashing to the floor of the empty banquet hall with a clatter. Rolling around in a drunken stupor, making a shambles of his grand exhibition of wealth, and simultaneously concluding Dean’s last scene in front of an audience.

His life would be taken even before Giant finished filming, some of his last scenes of dialogue being reread by close friend Nick Adams, his temperamental nature and habit of mumbling lines impacting the production even after his passing. Still, George Stevens himself, despite the insurmountable hell he was put through, and the hits his shooting schedule took, even admitted that Dean was something special.

You might not like him but all of us seem to gravitate to him for some inexplicable reason. He carries our gaze with his ticks and his delivery. It’s as if he forces us to take heed even out of a necessity to understand him, his head downcast, his hands fidgeting and such, all a ploy to carry our attention. It generally works.

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Yes, we lost him so young but the beauty of Giant’s epic stature is that in cinematic terms Dean was blessed with a full life. We saw him as a fiery youth in East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in Giant he evolved into an equally tortured man who grew old before our eyes. That’s the magic of the movies. But sometimes it’s so easy to have his legend overshadow all others.

The latter half of the film is really about the Benedict family evolving with the maturation of their children. Dean is worth a closer look certainly, but I’m inclined to enjoy the performances of Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper nearly as much if only for the simple fact that they’re less heralded.

Baker is the daughter caught in the throes of romance and decadence who finds Jett Rink more fun partly for the very fact that her stuffy parents abhor what he has become. Meanwhile, Hopper brings a surprisingly earnest candor as the Benedict’s eldest son with aspirations to be a doctor instead of a rancher, pushing against family tradition, subsequently marrying a Mexican-American bride, and facing the unfortunate ostracization that comes with such a life.

Some of the most evocative scenes are actually held between Hudson and Taylor. To most, their careers were known for personal lives exploited by tabloids. They don’t get the same adulation as Dean as actors. Still, in this film, they do something quite spectacular in a more unassuming way. They quite authentically reflect the life of a married couple as their romance and life together waxes and wanes over the years. That includes Jett Rink’s onslaught and the trials with kids but, at the core it’s just the two of them, grappling with it together.

Because this is a film that unfolds over decades we come to appreciate the changes that come over the characters and not so much the makeup or touches of gray. More important are the strides they make in their lives or even how they remain the same.

They model what it is to be young and in love, to quarrel and bicker and to make up and to be diplomatic and to have dreams and aspirations and to want the best for your children and at the same time hold grudges and feel like the ones you love are purposely trying to undermine you.

To begin with, this is a fairy tale romance of opposites. Hudson is the formidable Texan bred as a rancher and he comes to the upper echelons of eastern society looking for a stallion and he comes back with a bride instead.

She comes to his country initially welcomed and then feeling like an outsider in a land that is so set in its ways. Men and woman are expected to exist in certain spheres. White folks don’t fraternize with Mexicans. And cattle barons tame their land and breed their stock like their fathers before them. It’s tradition and they stick to it. Bic Benedict is raised in that Texas tradition dating all the way back to the Alamo, his stock proud, fiery, and tough.

Still, his wife Leslie is just as audacious but in different ways, testing his sensibilities and testing the matrimonial bonds of their marriage. She rather comically proposes her own marriage, looks to break up the boy’s club mentality that dictates the culture, and tramples over the de facto laws of the land in favor of goodwill to all. That means if a baby is sick, she fetches a doctor. The color of its skin makes no difference. In that atmosphere, it’s radical that she extends kindness to everyone, not simply her own “kind” as it were, whether divided by class or racial barriers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the sorry state of affairs but also of her personal convictions and they bleed into the rest of her family.

The final showcase comes not in his front and center bout with Jett Rink because although we’ve been expecting it for decades, as such it never comes. Jett’s not worth it anymore. Instead, Bic’s shining moment comes in, of all places, a roadside diner. He’s not as strapping as he used to be and he gets wailed on something awful. But in this moment as he’s duking it out with a local bigot, the platform that he stands on is not simply about his family name or his own personal honor as a Benedict but along the planes of what is morally right and wrong.

Rejecting service to people based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong. Disrespecting people of other races can and never should be accepted. Years before he would have never taken a stand on such touchy issues but he’s matured in that regard and his wife falls in love with him all over again. She sees first hand why she grew to love this man.

He lies there on the floor heaving and bloodied with food flung all around him the oddly upbeat throngs of “Yellow Rose of Texas” still whirring on the jukebox but ironically Leslie has never been more proud of her man. It’s that paradoxical maxim written about many times. Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing good.

Most modern viewers will honestly thank their lucky stars that they don’t make epics like this. But there’s something fleetingly enchanting about these old-time vehicles that managed to encompass so much space with grandiose ambitions and awesome imagery full of million dollar skies and fluffy clouds as far as the eye can see.

The West is dead as is the American genre. The stars as we knew them are no more. We are still a nation struggling with issues of race and class. Love and marriage. That mixture of nostalgia and timelessness still makes Giant a draw.  George Stevens is one of The Great American Directors and though Shane (1953) will remain his unassuming masterpiece, Giant deserves at the very least a modicum amount of respect as a dying breed of American epic.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Entry in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon!

Review: East of Eden (1955)

east_of_eden_posterEast of Eden. It was John Steinbeck’s epic work. Showcasing a familial narrative sprawled across his familiar locales of Salinas and Monterey over the turn of the century. But as a film, it rather unwittingly became James Dean’s. He wasn’t even a star yet. He had been on the stage and in a few small roles on television. His performance as Cal Trask was his first film role and the only one that ever got released during his lifetime. As his following two films, both premiered after his untimely death (curiously not all that far away from this film’s setting).

Director Elia Kazan utilized Technicolor and the harrowing perspective of Cinemascope to paint East of Eden with vibrant colors and rather unnerving angles. It’s also true that Kazan, known for evoking intense performances from actors bread on the Method,  was more inspired than perhaps even he realized when he cast Dean. The actor’s body movements. His moody histrionics. His angst emanating from those piercing eyes of his. Even his terminal sadness channeled from his own real-life desire for his father’s love. It’s all within the role of Cal Trask and takes away any doubt about who the focal point of this film is.

And for some, this might be a rather glaring problem with the film. Kazan’s adaptation of the latter half of Steinbeck’s novel focuses on the Cain and Abel dynamic between brothers Cal and Aron as they vie for the affection of their father Adam. For the film to work, each of these characters should be on equal footing. And it’s true that the film is a pendulum of emotional turmoil. It’s positively charged with virulent intensity. First, it’s Cal who is angry and isolated as he tries to discover the whereabouts of the mother he never knew. Meanwhile, his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) is happily in love with his girl and readily defends his brother against any criticism.

But as Cal tries with all his might to win the affection of his father by any means possible, things begin to change. No, his father never exhibits the type of pleasure in him that he so desires, but in his struggles, Cal becomes closer with his brother’s girl — gaining her sympathy.

As time passes, the U.S. is teetering on the brink of the Great War and still, Cal cannot earn his father’s love and his brother becomes more and more jealous. As Cal comes into his own, showing a certain amount of industry and thoughtfulness, it seems Aron becomes more withdrawn and cold. And still, Adam loves his “good son” the best.

James Dean’s performance is spectacularly engaging. I would argue it’s not a morbid sense of curiosity that draws us to him as a tragic hero. But he truly had a special ability to control entire scenes with a glance or some slight movement. Like a Brando or a Clift, he had a certain ability to tap into something that classical actors couldn’t quite touch. Whether it was realism or not is slightly beside the point because they live in characters who are charged with real emotions. It makes Dean’s role as Cal Trask almost palpable. You can feel all that is going on inside of him.

It’s the fact that Dean is so memorable, that brings to light just how much some of the other roles pale in comparison. Davalos does a fine job in his first film, but he cannot balance the scales weighed down by Dean. Raymond Massey on his part is a fairly flat actor not given to anything altogether interesting. It is Dean who elevates Massey’s role in a sense (even though Massey despised the younger actor). Furthermore, Julie Harris is a reputable performer with great heart but she somehow seems miscast (perhaps she’s too old for her role). And Jo Van Fleet gets into the film with a few integral scenes but even she does not have enough time to neutralize Dean.

Perhaps it’s because of the now iconic screen tests of Dean and Paul Newman working off each other, but part of me wonders if Newman in the role of Aron could have done anything to counterbalance Dean. Part of me rejects this hypothesis because Newman never had the same type of melancholy or intensity that Dean was able to muster. He was the likable one. Still, it’s an interesting supposition that in no way takes away from the phenomenal way James Dean burst onto the scene in 1955. He was an explosive supernova of talent — unfortunately for us, he was snuffed out far too quickly.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

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You can wake up now, the universe has ended.” – Jim Stark to Plato in Griffith Observatory

James Dean’s “The Rebel Without a Cause.” It’s his image as much as it is a film for many people. But if we actually take the time to examine him,  Dean subverts expectations. There’s this aura built around him as that iconic rebel–cigarette in hand–a glint in his eyes. However, the beauty of his performance as Jim Stark is how broken and even gentle it is. Certainly, we remember the moments where he screams at parents, bashes in desks and kicks paintings, but really most of his screen time is made of quiet nuances. He has no friends. He’s lonely and reserved. He just wants respect.

He wants someone to listen to him–someone to stand up for what’s right. And he feels like a pendulum swinging madly between his bickering parents, constantly making him go this way and that, moving from town to town, time and time again. It sickens him and he reacts in the only way he knows.

Rebel is just as much a subversive film, being so daring as to suggest that juvenile delinquency is a sort of created social construct. Kids do bad things, sure, teens are no good, but if you dig around a bit and look in the closets, the skeletons reveal themselves in due time. We now conveniently call them “family of origin issues,” but that puts everything in a nice box when the reality is actually very messy.

That’s why the crucial scene in Rebel is when our three solitary teens go to Plato’s (Sal Mineo) abandoned mansion getaway in the dead of night.  Alone it would be a house of horrors, but in community, they make it a pleasant affair–even playing a game of “house” complete with stuffy honeymooners, who don’t want kids unless they never have to see or talk to them again and a realtor who is is willing to give them the place for $3 million a month (Thankfully the newlyweds have a budget!). In essence, amidst their jests, they’ve become one happy family, finding a bit of solace from the asphyxiation of the world around them. The world accentuated by not only their parents but their peers too. However, it cannot last.

It’s these moments that feel so light and carefree and that’s the key. Blink and you’ll miss them. Look away and the bubble is popped. Focus on the drama and you’ll get it all wrong. Because the moments of drama are exactly the moments that you expect to get some deeper understanding of their psyches. You look at Jim in the now iconic scene on the staircase, quarreling with his parents or Plato running off like a frightened rabbit packing a gun. We can shake our heads and ask “why?” but if we only sit back and listen, it becomes all too obvious.

If Mr. and Mrs. Stark just listened, if Judy’s parent’s paid heed to her, if Plato actually had parents present in his life, maybe they could see what was “tearing them apart.” The suffocating hopelessness of the world that seems magnified tenfold in your adolescent years, as things are changing so rapidly. You’re getting pressured beyond belief and to top it off, it seems like no one understands you–not in the least.

Thanks be to Nicholas Ray for bringing such an intimate study of youth to light, because it’s certainly melodrama, elevated by the unpredictable magic that is James Dean. That’s often the spotlight of this film and quite understandably so, given the lore around his legendary career and tragic death.

But cull its depths and there’s even more if we look at how everything is initially foreshadowed at the Observatory, where the man in a droll tone nonchalantly summarizes the insignificant end of earth–only an infinitesimal speck in the patchwork of the universe (“In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence”).

Buzz tells Jim before their “Chickie Run” that he actually kind of likes the guy now, but still, “You gotta do something. Don’t you?” It’s the despondency of their existence. Buzz soon dies and people hardly bat an eye.

Never before had I considered how this entire story unfolds in the course of one tragic day. It’s not realism by any means, but instead, it’s bursting with the passion and pain as reflected by Ray’s camera and impeccable use of color.  It’s as if the teenage experience is being wholly magnified and consolidated into a single moment. That’s what Rebel Without a Cause embodies.

5/5 Stars

Nobody’s Fool (1994)

NobodysfoolEarlier this year I wrote a piece on the evolution of acting that I envisioned as a case study of sorts. The second wave of actors I attempted to analyze included the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman.

It is this last figure I wish to look at again in the context of Robert Benton’s 1994 film Nobody’s Fool. In all areas, this drama meanders along following town grump and crotchety ne’er do well Sully Sullivan (Paul Newman), who works as a freelance construction worker in a peaceful, snowy New York getaway. So, by all accounts, it seems like it should be a complete and utter bore, but it is not thanks, in part, to Paul Newman and his array of supporting players.

As I have watched more and more films in the last half a dozen years or so, there has been an ongoing trend where I tend to care less and less about substantial plot and more and more about characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love a taut thriller or an engaging mystery story, but the films that really do it for me have memorable performances that reflect a bit about the world we live in. Sometimes I even feel like a broken record, because I reiterate this fact so often, but I believe it to be the truth.

In other words, it feels utterly superfluous to go in depth about this film’s plot. It’s about a no-good Paul Newman, who left his wife, left his son, and never turned back. Now he must accept the path he chose and decide whether or not to spend his waning years finally getting to know his son and grandkid. It’s not rocket science by any means, and the film certainly feels dated, but Newman strangely does not, although his hair is a little bit whiter.

Now back to the generation of actors he came out of. They were the young, moody band of men brought up on the method that taught them to grab hold of emotions and experiences to be projected on the screen in each role they took. Dean was legendary, but his career was cut short. Brando was a giant, but slowly fell from grace and his waistline grew. Newman was famously married to his wife Joanne Woodward for over 50 years, started the charity Newman’s Own, and continued having a media presence in the late 20th and early 21st century. In other words, he aged gracefully compared to many of his contemporaries.

Nobody’s Fool nobodys1falls closer to the tail end of his career, but he has the same gleam in his eye or maybe it’s that sour smile with a hitch in his giddy-up. But it feels genuine, it feels relatable, and it feels very much like the Paul Newman many people know and love. I know I do. He’s so often a malcontent or a bum and yet we cannot help but root for him. He also has some wonderful moments to work with the likes of Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, among others, because first and foremost this is a film about relationships. These are people who have made mistakes and who are not always the wisest, but somehow we still appreciate them with all their faults and peculiarities. I guess that’s what the small town mentality does, in a way. You get to know everyone and you come to accept them for who they are. Stealing a snow blower, playing cards, drinking a beer, or buying your daily trifecta ticket just feels commonplace. That’s life.

3.5/5 Stars

The Best Films of James Dean (1931-1955)

To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty; to interpret it his problem; and to express it his dedication.  


1. Rebel Without a Cause
2. Giant
3. East of Eden

Other appearances:
Has Anybody Seen My Gal
Fixed Bayonets
Trouble Along the Way
Sailor Beware

Giant (1956)

This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was a old man.

4.5/5 Stars

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo,  with direction by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers, who are confused and conflicted about their lives. 

The initial sequence rolling behind the opening credits has the inebriated Jim Stark lying in the street fiddling with a toy monkey. Then, he is brought into juvenile hall, and simultaneously the story gives us a glimpse of not only the rowdy Jim, but discontented Judy, and the distant boy Plato. Each one has their own personal pain, and thus this film from the beginning really focuses on three rebels, who embody the adolescent generation. James Dean is Jim Stark: the new kid on the block, who is constantly moving with his parents. In the station when his parents retrieve him, there is obvious tension on all fronts, which include heated arguments, and outbursts on the part of Jim.

The morning after being brought in he meets Judy only to get mixed up with her friends. Stark however also befriends the isolated loner Plato, who was in the station the night before. The trouble with the other teens starts with a switchblade contest during a school excursion to Griffith Observatory, but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Stark lives but the other boy, Buzz, dies in the accident. Everyone flees the scene before the police arrive.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their parents seemingly do not understand them, and so they find comfort in each other instead. Their new found friend Plato tags along as they hold up in an abandoned mansion for the night. They spend the evening lounging around, making light of their parents and just talking. 

However, all does not bode well when some of the high school thugs come looking for Stark. Plato flees the scene with a gun, and soon he has policemen on his tail. Plato is in a paranoid and unstable state. Jim tries to console him and bring him out peacefully. But despite his best efforts, tragedy strikes one final blow.  All is not wasted, however, because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better and stronger parent than he was before. 

Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short but iconic career. His line “you’re tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time. There is a certain aura around this film for some reason, maybe because of Dean’s portrayal that is at times so moody, and at other times so subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

I think part of the credit must go to director Nicholas Ray, who gave Dean free reign to improvise and develop his character in the way he saw fit. The film is tragic in another sense because all the primary stars died at an early age. Dean’s is the most remembered, but Mineo and Wood, both died extremely young as well. In Rebel Without a Cause, they all gave memorable performances and there are other notable players in this film including the usually comedic Jim Bachus and a very young Dennis Hopper.

I think Rebel ultimately survives today because it tells a universal tale of a generational divide and a divide between young people fighting peer pressure. In the heads of teenagers the world can become jumbled and between school, fitting in, and home life it can be a struggle. This film dramatically illustrates that fact. So maybe the kids look different, the cars are older and such, but the struggles of Jim Stark, Judy, and Plato are still relatively the same.  I must say this film really makes me want to visit the Griffith Observatory too, because it became such an integral part of this film’s story, and it is still around to this day.

James Dean only had three major film performances and you could make a case for which was the best. I think it is safe to say that this role was his most iconic. It’s hard not to identify him with his red jacket, blue jeans, and the ubiquitous cigarette. He was the Rebel Without a Cause.

 
5/5 Stars

East of Eden (1954)

In his first great film role, James Dean plays a rebellious son named Cal Trask who lives with his father and brother Aron in Salinas. Directed by Elia Kazan from the Steinbeck novel, the movie chronicles Cal’s struggles in the shadow of his favored brother Aron. Despite good intentions at first, Cal is constantly rejected the praise that his brother garners. Thus embittered, he lashes out at his brother, falls for Aron’s girl, and turns their father’s world upside down. With his performance Dean brings alive the character who is himself an allegory for Cain. Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet all deliver good performances that play off Cal. Overall this is a classic adaption of a classic author. 

 4/5 Stars

James Dean


James Dean was a method actor who has become legendary because of the image he created and the relative short span of his career which was ended by a tragic car accident. His only three starring roles were in fact in East of EdenRebel Without a Cause, and Giant. His moody and intense performances as alienated young men and a powerful oil tycoon won him two posthumous academy award nominations. This further helped to solidify his legacy.

East of Eden (1954)
In his first great film role, James Dean plays a rebellious son named Cal Trask who lives with his father and brother Aron in Salinas. Directed by Elia Kazan from the Steinbeck novel, the movie chronicles Cal’s struggles in the shadow of his favored brother Aron. Despite good intentions at first, Cal is constantly rejected the praise that his brother garners. Thus embittered, he lashes out at his brother, falls for Aron’s girl, and turns their father’s world upside down. With his performance Dean brings alive the character who is himself an allegory for Cain. Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet all deliver good performances that play off Cal. Overall this is a classic adaption of a classic author. 

8/10 rating

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers who are confused and conflicted about their lives. Dean is Jim Stark, the new kid on the block and he meets Wood only to get mixed up with her friends. First it starts with a switchblade contest at the Griffith Observatory but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Dean lives but the other boys dies in the accident. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their new-found friend Plato tags along as they hold out in an abandoned mansion for the night. However all does not bode well and Jim is eventually devastated. All is not for naught however because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better parent then he was before. Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short career. His line “your tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time.

9/10 rating

Giant (1955)
This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when
Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was an old man.

9/10 rating