FILM: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is the eleventh film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use artificial intelligence as part of their work in creating the global defence program “Ultron”. However, when Ultron (James Spader) unexpectedly becomes a sentient being, he goes completely against the purpose of his programming and begins plotting to destroy the world. The Avengers begin working on a plan to stop and destroy Ultron, but this is made all the more difficult when Vision manipulates twins Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into joining his side.

PROS

  • The film opens with a spectacularly choreographed and shot battle as the Avengers infiltrate a Hydra facility. This is an exciting battle to watch and explores the team work and banter between the Avengers, thereby getting us invested in the film and foreshadowing the type of battle content that can be found later on in the film (especially in the final, climactic battle).
  • As director/screenwriter, Joss Whedon once again puts good focus on character. He explores well the insecurities and fears of Stark, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth); fleshes out Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wonderfully by giving him a family, meaning that we invest in him more as a character; and even gives Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver a backstory which makes it believable that they could be manipulated by Ultron, so we sympathise with them. The events of this film build well on the character arcs of their previous film appearances and also neatly foreshadow what may come in future films.
  • A good cast, with all of the returning cast members proving once again that they were perfect casting choices for their characters. The dynamic between them is excellent, with highlights including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans conveying the underlying mutual respect which Stark and Captain America maintain, even when their friendship comes under strain due to extremely stressful situations; and an engaging chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo.
  • Like with all Marvel Cinematic Universe films, this is a visually spectacular film, with an epic scale climactic battle that is just one of several exciting, fast-paced scenes, and breathtaking aerial shots of characters such as Iron Man and War Machine (Don Cheadle) in flight.

CONS

  • The creation of Ultron is incredibly rushed and explored at a very surface-level detail, while he is an altogether underwhelming antagonist due to his generic and predictable hatred for humanity and desire to kill the world, while his dialogue is used more for comedy than for threat.
  • There are a number of contrived factors to the narrative, such as the blossoming romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, and also Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tracking the Avengers down with ease when Ultron forces them into hiding. Furthermore, the (admittedly exciting) fight between Hulk and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armour only really feels like fan service, as do the cameo appearances of several of the franchise’s supporting characters.
  • The final battle, while exciting and epic in scale, is tonally inconsistent as the intense action is broken up at several points by banter and conversation which feels like page-filler, while Ultron himself is barely a presence and feels like far less of a threat than Loki did in the climactic battle of Avengers Assemble.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)

NOTEAvengers Assemble is the UK title for The Avengers.

Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Chris Hemsworth in The Avengers (2012)

Avengers Assemble is the sixth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the conclusion to Phase One. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plans to use the Tesseract to open a wormhole above New York, so that the Chitauri can invade and subjugate the Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to stop him, to become the Avengers. However, if they are to stop someone as cunning and clever as Loki then they are going to have to learn to work together, and put aside their tendencies to go solo.

PROS

  • Director/screenwriter Joss Whedon could easily have got a poor balance with the character focus, but he ensures that the film is character-driven and takes the time to explore each of the six Avengers in depth. For example, we see Captain America struggling to adjust to life in the 21st Century, we listen to Banner reflect sombrely on his struggles with the Hulk persona, we see Iron Man learn how to become a team player. As such we invest in this film because we invest in the characters, who each have real humanity, despite their superhero status.
  • Loki is a fantastic antagonist and subverts the stereotype of the superhero film villain. Rather than rely on incredible powers to cause pain and misery, Loki uses remarkable intellect to identify everyone’s weaknesses and insecurities, before then manipulating them and getting under their skin. As such, his interactions with the Avengers are very intriguing and highly interesting to watch, and there is a far greater sense of stakes than there would be if Loki relied on brute force.
  • An excellent cast, with Samuel L. Jackson bringing real authority to the role of Fury, while Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth are equally at home doing comic scenes as they are with emotional drama. Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans are perfectl cast as Bruce Banner and Captain America, while Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson have good chemistry with each other. However, Tom Hiddleston regularly steals the show as Loki, playing the God of Mischief with a wonderful sense of cunning and a wonderfully odd charm that makes him captivating to watch.
  • Joss Whedon’s direction comes through the most in the climactic battle, which is not only very well shot and edited, but it is very well paced and clearly intricately planned. Every character has a role and a purpose in the well-choreographed battle, and Whedon focuses on the characters as they consider the ever-changing scenario and what they may need to do, and as they gradually get more drained by its unrelenting nature. Furthermore, he takes the time to explore their efforts to protect the civilians of New York, which many other directors would not have thought about.
  • The visual effects are spectacular, particularly in the epic scale climactic battle. However, the best effects-decision is one which (in the grander scheme of things) is more small scale, and that is the decision to use motion-capture for when Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk, which had never been done before. As such, Banner(/Mark Ruffalo) can be seen in the Hulk, which gives the character a far greater sense of believability than ever before.

CONS

  • A few moments of the narrative feel a bit rushed, such as the recruitment of individual Avengers by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the aftermath of the climactic battle. Furthermore, some of the supporting characters – who had already been prominent within the wider Cinematic Universe or were about to become hugely prominent within it – did not get that much screentime. Notably, Pepper Potts’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) brief appearance feels like fan service, while Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is little more than a plot device.

VERDICT: 9/10

PREVIEW: May 2020

Boy…this time last year I was promising reviews for the first wave of summer blockbusters…and this time the year before that…and the year before that. It would be fair to say that I have no idea what the next month holds in store for this blog and, to a lesser extent, for myself. However, I trust in God’s purposes and that he will give me the strength to get through the month ahead as he has done so consistently through this pandemic, and every other trial that I went through before it began.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the month ahead and the likelihood that I will have a fair amount on that is PhD-related, I cannot promise specific content for the month ahead. However, I can and do promise that there will be content and that this pandemic has not quenched my love for the creative arts, even though I cannot experience them in my local Odeon cinema for the time being.

Thank you as always for visiting this blog, and for the month ahead I, as ever, wish you Happy Reading! Most importantly though, I wish you and all your friends and families safety and good health during these unprecedented times!

TELEVISION: Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon (2016-2019)

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Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon is an anime series, the sequel series to Pokémon the Series: XY, and originally aired on TV Tokyo in Japan with 146 episodes, all but one of which were dubbed into English. Following their Kalos journey, Ash (Sarah Natochenny) and Pikachu (Ikue Ohtani) head to the Alola region, where Ash enrols in the Pokémon School, and becomes classmates with Kiawe (Marc Swint), Sophocles (Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld), Lillie (Laurie Hymes), Mallow (Jessica Paquet) and Lana (Rosie Reyes). Ash also gets a Z-Ring and takes on the Island Challenge, earning Z-Crystals. However, like with every region he has ever travelled to, Ash is followed to Alola by the Team Rocket trio, who remain intent on stealing Pikachu.

PROS

  • With Ash and his friends being based at the School and doing Island hopping as and when, this is a very different series of Pokémon as its narrative is more a slice-of-life. It also means that there are more Walking Pokémon than in previous series, and far more recurring characters rather than characters of the day. Furthermore, the setting also provides a platform for some good and exciting subplots, including the Ultra Guardians’ missions and the mystery of Nebby (Haven Paschall).
  • This series deals with far more serious themes than previous Pokémon series, by depicting death, the process of grieving for loved ones and even struggles with mental health in ways which are sensitive, mature and (in several episodes) genuinely heartbreaking to watch. These themes also serve a clear purpose in developing a number of characters, including Lillie and Mallow.
  • Interesting and enjoyable character development for Ash as he learns to relax and enjoy both life and nature for the wonderful gifts that they are. Furthermore, by being more grounded in setting, we see more of Team Rocket learning to enjoy life, and these long-term antiheroes are humanised much more than in previous series.
  • The Pokémon battles are highly energetic and very exciting to watch, while the animation of the Z-Moves is very creative, boasting real flare, lots of detail and (in several cases especially) spectacular colour palettes.

CONS

  • The animation style of Pokémon drastically changed with this series to resemble something more like an American Saturday morning cartoon. This is most notable in the character designs and expressions, and a lack of texture to the natural world. As such, the series often looks dated, does not feel that much like an anime, and is a huge step-down from the XY series’ animation quality.
  • The issue with having so many main characters is that there is an inconsistent amount of character focus and development – notably Sophocles, Kiawe and Lana receive far less than Ash, Lillie and Mallow. Furthermore, the number of plotholes concerning Professor Kukui (Abe Goldfarb) and his Pokémon become increasingly prevalent as the series goes on.
  • Despite dealing with more mature themes than Pokémon previously has, the humour of this series is very childlike and quite goofy, with several running gags becoming quite tedious.

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane)

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Adult comedy Ted is distributed by Universal. As a child (Bretton Manley) in 1984, John Bennett’s wish for his teddy bear to come to life came true. It is now 2012 and John (Mark Wahlberg) is 35-years-old, and remains best friends and housemates with Ted (Seth MacFarlane), with whom he regularly gets high and watches Flash Gordon. However, John’s long-term girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), is growing increasingly frustrated by the amount of time that the pair are spending together, and these perpetual man-children (or man-child-teddy in Ted’s case) are put into a position where they have to face up to their adult responsibilities.

PROS

  • A consistently paced narrative with a good sense of energy. Fans of Family Guy (the first 10 seasons that is!), such as myself, will be especially appeased as the comedy is exactly what you would want and expect from Seth MacFarlane (the director/co-producer/co-writer/co-star) – there are pop culture references galore, cutaway gags, cheeky mockery of modern-day society and a great slapstick scene that is obviously a nod to the Giant Chicken fights.
  • Despite all of the humour this is a very character-driven narrative, with John and Ted helping each other to grow up and develop, and there is a lot of heart and warmth to be found in the scenes which these characters share.
  • Seth MacFarlane gives a memorable and energetic voice performance as Ted, while Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis are solid co-leads and have good chemistry. Giovanni Ribisi and Aedin Mincks give suitably unnerving turns as antagonistic father/son duo Donny and Robert. Also, look out for a great cameo from Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones as himself.
  • Ted is created by some very good CGI that breathes real life and expression into the character, while Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis do a great job of interacting with the CGI creation, crafting a very good and believable chemistry with it.

CONS

  • Despite good performances from Giovanni Ribisi and Aedin Mincks, the father/son antagonist duo of Donny and Robert are quite underdeveloped, and their place in the narrative does at times feel somewhat contrived.
  • While the energy and pacing is fairly consistent, the quality of the gags does dip a few of times – notably the slapstick at a Norah Jones gig is underwhelming, and the gags concerning the antagonists are mostly uninspired.
  • While sensitive and serious topics such as neglect and child abuse are not ridiculed like they have been in Family Guy, they are only touched upon at a rather surface-level.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: This Means War (2012, McG)

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Romantic-comedy This Means War is distributed by Fox. Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) starts dating two guys at the same time – Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine). What she does not realise it that they are CIA agents and best friends. They are both aware of the fact that the other is dating Lauren, and while she tries to decide which guy to go with, they try to sabotage each other’s attempts to win her heart.

PROS

  • There is a lot of energy to this film, which means that some of the poorly written scenes remain watchable and occasionally engaging due to their pacing.
  • Tom Hardy and Chris Pine have a good sense of banter and clearly have fun working together, and their comic timing and delivery is also pretty good.

CONS

  • It is impossible to invest in either of the romances, as there is so much objectification rather than genuine value of the person within. Furthermore, with all of the two-timing, attempted sabotage and deceit at the heart of the relationships, it is impossible to genuinely picture Lauren with either man.
  • A highly predictable narrative, as it is always incredibly obvious that Lauren is going to find herself conflicted, or when one of the men looks set to win her heart the other will attempt a sabotage, and the “shocking” revelations can be seen coming from a mile away.
  • It is impossible to invest in or care for Lauren as a character, not just because she two-times and objectifies the men, but because she is incredibly hypocritical, which is most clearly seen in the outrage which she expresses when she inevitably learns that Tuck and FDR are friends and were knowingly dating the same woman. Some supporting characters are also a pain to endure – namely Lauren’s incredibly shallow and dislikeable best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Furthermore, supporting cast members Angela Bassett and Rosemary Harris are underused.
  • McG’s direction of some of the romance scenes is quite ham-fisted, but still not as bad as his direction of action scenes, the final results of which are sloppy scenes that have a lot of energy, but which are almost farcical in how over-the-top they are – kind of like how a pair of 12-year-olds would try to do a high energy action scene in a Drama class (…to my shame, I am speaking from experience…).

VERDICT: 3/10

LITERATURE: Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954)

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British survival novel Lord of the Flies was published by Faber and Faber. During wartime, a British aeroplane crashes on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean. The only survivors are a group of schoolboys, who make Ralph (the optimistic son of a Naval Officer) their “Chief”. However, with no adults around and the non-existence of a firm sense of order, the boys start to descend into savagery and their attempts to co-exist in peace begin to fail. Desperate to maintain a sense of order and increase their chances of being rescued, as the majority of the boys descend into savagery, the lives of Ralph, “Piggy”, Simon, Sam and Eric end up in danger.

PROS

  • William Golding does a wonderful job with allegorical writing, as he crafts detailed, chilling and often very shocking allegories for the impact of the collapse of civilisation, the tensions between group verdicts and individual thinking, and the inner conflict between rationality and impulsiveness.
  • In the well-realised character arc and action-descriptions for Jack Merridew, who starts off as arrogant and self-important, descends into increasing sadism and eventually into homicidal tendencies, as well as Roger who becomes a homicidal sociopath, William Golding channelled his experiences and memories of World War II. Even if you take the collapse of civilisation out of the equation, these arcs hold up very well as explorations of how humans can commit truly horrific acts of violence against each other, and how people’s desire to exert power can motivate them to cause unfathomable harm upon others.
  • A lot of writers struggle to realise child characters realistically, but William Golding does not, as the initial behaviour of the boys in the early chapters as they run wild, loving the sense of freedom is how you would expect school-aged children to behave. Furthermore, like many children they try to obtain power by relying on status – Ralph regularly declares with pride that his father is a Naval Officer, while Jack believes that he should be Chief due to being the school choir leader. However, as more and more days on the island pass, Ralph and Piggy especially wish for proper beds and proper meals, which explores well how children need the warm comfort and familiarity of a home environment, and how the novelty factor of something new can be lost.
  • The main characters are very well realised, especially Ralph and Piggy. From their first meeting it is clear that they are very different personalities from very different backgrounds, but an unforeseen situation leads to them becoming close friends, even though they do not quite realise just how much they truly value each other until events take a dark turn. Not only is it a good realisation of how unforeseen circumstances can cause people to bond despite their differences, but the fact that they are both desperate to maintain order and civilisation shows how ideologies can unite people who would never normally interact with each other.
  • While the exact conflict that the novel is set within is not stated, it ultimately does not need to be. The fact that there is a conflict happening plays a key role in informing the characters’ backgrounds and perspective of the world. The boys speak with a real sense of patriotism and fighting spirit about Britain, which evokes the Dunkirk spirit of 1940s’ Britain; while it is also clear that the conflict has changed their lives and has given them a somewhat odd and confusing world to grow up in.

NITPICKS

  • While the exact conflict does not need stating, it is slightly distracting at times that it is not, particularly as some clues indicate World War II, yet other lines of dialogue indicate a 1950s’ setting.
  • Some of the boys are really only extras, which a couple of times makes the sense of overwhelming odds not feel quite so overwhelming.

VERDICT: 10/10

LITERATURE: The Mist (Stephen King, 1980)

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American horror novella The Mist was originally published by Viking Press, and can be found in the Skeleton Crew novella and short story collection. The town of Bridgton, Maine is enveloped in an unnatural mist which contains otherworldly monsters. Trapped by this mist in a grocery store with his five-year-old son Billy and a number of locals, David Drayton and the assistant manager (Ollie Weeks) try to figure out a way to get to safety. But as hours trapped in the store turn into days, and the deadly, otherworldly characteristics of the creatures are seen, the people around them one-by-one begin to descend into madness.

PROS

  • Stephen King made a great decision in writing this novella using first-person narrative from David’s point of view, as it means that we experience the sense of mystery concerning the titular mist as David does, as well as witness the descents into madness and hysteria all around him from his perspective, which increases the sense of fear very well. Furthermore, we see each of the horrific creatures for the first time from his perspective, so we understand well how unnerving and shocking an experience it is for all those involved.
  • Stephen King displays a wonderfully dark imagination with his creation of the creatures and his vivid descriptions of the the horrifying effects which their abilities can have upon human bodies. What is most impressive is that many of them are rooted in creatures that are commonly feared, such as spiders, insects and sea creatures, which would no doubt cause many a reader to shudder and emphasises King’s knack for identifying fears to play to.
  • From a thematic stance, The Mist works well as a depiction of how the disestablishment of normal rules, regulations and codes of conduct can lead to chaos, and of how a sense of crisis can bring out the more selfish and self-righteous sides of people. Furthermore, through young Billy, Stephen King depicts how a disorienting situation can terrify anyone, but how a child will make their true emotions clear in a way in which adults refuse to.

CONS

  • The novella ends ambiguously, which is always a gamble with a fictional narrative, and sadly it did not pay off here. In the content of its prose, Stephen King tries to come off as sharp and self-aware, but simply ends up coming across as having no idea how to end it, meaning that The Mist ends anticlimactically.
  • While the first couple of chapters establish well that the titular mist does not come on a normal day, many details concerning David’s wider family, upbringing and relationship with his neighbours are unnecessary, feeling like little more than page-filler. Later in the narrative, it becomes a lot harder to root for and sympathise with David when he commits adultery having only been separated from the wife whom he misses for a couple of days.

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: Gerald’s Game (2017, Mike Flanagan)

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Psychological-horror Gerald’s Game is adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same title, and is distributed by Netflix. In their rural vacation cottage, Jessie (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to the bed by her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) as part of a sex-game. However, Gerald dies of a heart attack, and Jessie realises that she is trapped, cut off from the world. As she desperately tries to work out how to free herself, Jessie finds herself confronting in her head her traumatic past, and comes to realise just how much that informed the person that she grew up to be and her relationship with Gerald.

PROS

  • In his direction, Mike Flanagan takes a nuanced and slow-burn approach, gradually building the sense of horror and the impossibility of Jessie’s situation, and gradually developing an understanding of how horrific situations have defined her life, while also showing reverence for small details, and trusting the viewer to work out why those are important.
  • Excellent screenwriting by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, who use Jessie’s hallucinations to gradually build an understanding of the true nature of her relationship with Gerald, and how that was informed by secrets from her past which she repressed. This opens up for some creepy and shocking flashback scenes, which the screenwriters lead into and open up beautifully.
  • Carla Gugino gives a terrific performance which is rich in raw emotion and somewhat chilling to watch, and crafts a believably toxic and scarily engaging chemistry with Bruce Greenwood; while Henry Thomas gives a memorably creepy supporting turn in flashback scenes.
  • A visually chilling film, with cinematographer Michael Fimognari making excellent use of natural lighting and shadows, while the make-up department create some incredibly vivid injury details and use of fake blood that will make you (at the very least) wince.

CONS

  • I totally get that this is an adaptation, but some of the set-up which increases the stakes for the bulk of the narrative feel quite contrived, namely how the presence of a hungry dog became a reality.
  • Again, it is a result of being an adaptation, but the twist in the final 5-10 minutes is altogether rather underwhelming, particularly as it makes several earlier scenes feel highly illogical.

VERDICT: 8/10

LITERATURE: Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)

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British dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was originally published by Secker & Warburg. The year is 1984, and much of the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, historical negationism and propaganda. Britain is now a province of a superstate called Oceania, which is ruled by the Party, who employ the Thought Police and whose leader – Big Brother – enjoys an intense cult of personality, despite the fact that he may not even exist. Diligent government worker Winston Smith secretly hates the Party, and yearns to rebel against it, a desire which could well be realised when he enters into a forbidden relationship with co-worker Julia, who shares his ideologies and hatred for the Party.

PROS

  • The descriptions of this horrifying dystopian vision of the future are incredibly detailed and altogether very harrowing, particularly when read now in the early Twenty-First Century when much of the concepts (especially those concerning surveillance and condemnation of thoughts) have become reality. In this, George Orwell creates a terrifying socio-political context for Winston and Julia to be living in, crafting a brilliant sense of suspense for the reader, as we wonder how long they can keep up their forbidden romance and prevent their secret desires to rebel against the Party a secret.
  • George Orwell showed his ingenuity and understanding of humanity’s fears at the point of writing this novel in the late-1940s, as he describes a war-torn existence in which bombs are dropped on people (if nothing else as an act of fear-mongering), while rationing is still in effect, with many people being scruffy and stick-thin as a result. With World War II having ended only a few years earlier, this vision of 1984 is a reality which many readers of 1949 would have understood only too well. Furthermore, the descriptions of unrelenting surveillance and a dictatorial political power which disposed of those whom they saw as potential opposition plays very well to the fears of the threat of communism which were beginning to become felt globally in the late-1940s.
  • Excellent characterisation which causes us to really invest in Winston and Julia, as they are clearly the underdogs and are obviously in the right against a morally and politically corrupt power. Through these characters, George Orwell engages wonderfully with themes such as the human desire for intimacy (namely through some – for the time – slightly risque descriptions of their physical intimacy) and love, as well as the right to not feel oppressed or judged in your day-to-day life. Through the Party – namely through some terrifyingly sadistic characters whose true natures and identities are revealed in the Final Act – Orwell takes the recurring theme of man’s desire to play God to a whole new and shocking level.
  • George Orwell ingeniously does not subject us to tonnes of exposition at the start of the novel, rather we learn the shocking truths and secrets of the Party along with Winston, which aids the sense of mystery concerning them and their history and gives the revelations an added sense of weight and horror as we understand them from Winston’s perspective.
  • In the vivid and shockingly detailed description of the horrific effects which illness and malnutrition have upon the human body, we may just see George Orwell channelling the struggles he felt with physical health due to his own struggles with severe tuberculosis.

NITPICKS

  • A couple of the surprising revelations lack surprise due to them being the revelation that somebody who seemed too good to be true was just that.
  • Some paragraphs could easily be broken up (a number cover around one and a half pages).

VERDICT: 10/10