An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. always gets offended when someone disses Iron Man

(2011) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr. Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, William Houston, Wolf Kahler, Affif Ben Badra. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

When the game is afoot, there is nobody you want on the case more than Sherlock Holmes. Still more than 100 years after his debut there has been no detective to equal his keen deductive mind and razor-sharp observation skills.

Holmes (Downey) is investigating a series of terrorist bombings in Europe, mostly involving France and Germany. He is also preparing to be best man at his old friend Dr. Watson’s (Law) wedding. As distracted as Holmes is he nearly forgets to put together Watson’s stag party which he does only at the last minute, inviting only his brother Mycroft (Fry) and none of Watson’s friends.

He also has an ulterior motive for where he has scheduled the stag party; one of the clues he has discovered has led him to gypsy fortune teller Madame Simza Heron (Rapace). He arrives in time to foil a murder attempt by acrobatic Russian Cossacks but this leads him no closer to the truth. He only has his powers of deduction to lead him to who is behind all of this – Professor James Moriarty (Harris). But what is he up to and why?

The need to find out the truth will lead Holmes to tear Watson away from his honeymoon for one last case which will take him to the basements of Paris to the castles of Switzerland. At stake is the peace of Europe, which if disturbed too much will lead to a catastrophic war, one which Moriarty seeks to profit from and one which Holmes seeks to prevent.

The plot is slightly more convoluted than what I’ve presented but in the interest in keeping some of the twists hidden I’ve kept it deliberately vague. There are some cross-references to the industrial military complex and a few to modern economic issues. This is pretty much a mishmash of about half a dozen Conan Doyle-penned Holmes stories, primarily “The Final Problem” but there are elements from “The Sign of Four,” “Valley of Fear” and “The Greek Interpreter” among others.

Once again this isn’t your granddaddy’s Holmes; Ritchie and Downey bring him a little closer in some ways to how Conan Doyle originally wrote him (while Holmes in the stories wasn’t primarily a fighter, he certainly lacked in social skills) but this isn’t the urbane deerstalker-wearing sleuth depicted by Basil Rathbone whose performance has essentially defined the role ever since.

The action sequences, as befitting a sequel, are much more elaborate than the first and sometimes that’s a good thing (as is a gun battle on a speeding train, or a frantic escape through a forest while under heavy artillery fire) and sometimes, not so much (as in a Holmes solo fight against a group of thugs early on in the movie). Ritchie’s trademark of using extreme slow motion and extreme fast motion to stylize his fights is here in spades; there were times I wish he just filmed the sequences straight but I have to admit the forest sequence was made more powerful because of it.

Downey and Law are at the core of the film; their relationship is what powers the movie and thankfully the chemistry between them that the first film established is still going strong here. Their by-play makes for some of the best moments in the film, and is at times delightful. Downey plays Holmes as even more disreputable in this film than he is in the first; although there is little contact with Inspector Lestrade (Marsan) who is only in a single scene this time out, nonetheless Ritchie enhances Holmes’ keen sense of observation with camera and digital tricks meant to give us an idea of how Holmes sees the world. Downey plays into this nicely which is one of the best things about the movie.

Harris makes a competent Moriarty, definitely giving us a glimpse into his own intelligence but keeping his character rather bland. You would expect that a master criminal, a “Napoleon of crime” would want to fly under the radar somewhat so the flamboyant villains of other films in that sense don’t really work in real life, if you can call the Holmes films that.

There is plenty to delight those who like action-packed spectacles including some amazing sets (the castle in Switzerland is nothing short of astonishing) and some fine acting. However, be warned that the plot is pretty much the same as other movies we’ve seen set in the same time period where the hero attempts to stop Europe from being plunged into a massive war that it would be plunged into anyway – twice. Too bad Holmes wasn’t around to stop Adolph Hitler. Now that would make for an interesting movie!

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Downey and Law. Harris makes a fine albeit bland Moriarty. Some action sequences are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: The slo-mo/fast-mo action juxtapositions get a bit old. The “bringing Europe to the brink of war” saw is also a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action violence and brief drug use references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the beginning of the film, the camera pans over typed excerpts of stories Watson has been working on; these are from the Sherlock Holmes stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “A Blue Carbuncle.”

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Adventures of Tintin

Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18

The Tourist


The Tourist

Johnny Depp can't get over Angelina Jolie; Angelina Jolie can't get over venice; the bellman can't get over that he's actually in this scene.

(2010) Thriller (Columbia) Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Steven Berkoff, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica, Alessio Boni, Daniele Pecci, Giovanni Guidelli, Raoul Bova, Bruno Wolkovich, Ralf Moeller. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A beautiful mysterious woman on a train. A math teacher from a Podunk junior college in Wisconsin. All the ingredients for a wonderfully crafted thriller in the vein of Charade or any one of a number of Hitchcock movies, and in the hands of an Oscar-winning director could be the makings of a marvelous two hours at the movies. 

A beautiful, sophisticated Parisian woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) is being watched by the police, in particular a Scotland Yard police inspector by the name of John Acheson (Bettany) who seriously needs to consider a decaffeinated brand. She receives a note from Alexander Pearce, a brilliant larcenist on the run from not only Interpol and Scotland Yard but also from Reginald Shaw (Berkoff), a notorious British gangster who has a predilection of surrounding himself with Russian muscle. You see, Pearce stole more than two billion dollars from Shaw and that kind of thing tends not to sit well with gangsters. Elise is apparently the connection to Pearce that everyone is looking for.

The note tells her to get on the train to Venice and pick out someone with a similar height and build as Pearce and make the police believe that the man she is with is actually Pearce. It appears that the thief has used some of his ill-gotten loot to change his face and even his voice. Nobody knows what he looks like now, not even Elise.

She chooses a very unlikely sort; Frank Tupelo (Depp), the aforementioned Math teacher from the junior college in Wisconsin (making Jolie the mystery woman on the train). The two of them wind up flirting. He is surprised; things like this never happen to him. Still, they share a fine meal and then as the train pulls into the station, they go their separate ways. Frank is certain he’s seen the last of her.

But he hasn’t. As he fumbles with a map in St. Mark’s Square, she pulls up in a boat and offers him a lift. She takes him to a five star hotel, and checks him in as her husband. It is clear they are mutually attracted, but she loves someone else – and his heart has recently been broken. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in the bed.

In the meantime, both Interpol and the gangster are closing in on them. Frank has no idea what he’s in for but as thugs with guns come after him and the police sell him to the mobster, he only knows that the deadly game he’s playing he must win because the consequences of losing are fatal.

There are definitely elements to a variety of old-fashioned thrillers, not the least of which are Charade, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. Director von Donnersmarck previously directed the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others knows his way around a thriller, and while this isn’t the most energetic ones in terms of suspense, it nonetheless keeps the audience on their toes.

Jolie is channeling Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly here simultaneously – not an easy feat I can tell you. Her Elise is cool, sophisticated and elegant – she even wears long formal gloves, not something most people wear these days. This is Jolie at her most attractive, and she uses her beauty as a deadly trap. She is the very embodiment of the femme fatale.

Depp can act the stammering, stumbling nincompoop when he chooses to; in fact, it’s part of his charm. I think the part might have been better served with a suave Cary Grant type – not that there are any around like that (maybe George Clooney comes close). Depp fulfills his role competently but there isn’t much chemistry between him and Jolie; a little more passion might have made the movie work better.

The supporting cast is solid, with Bettany as the obsessive cop, Dalton as his angry boss (what is it about superior police officers that they always have to have a bug up their asses?) and Berkoff as the baddie, a role he has more or less perfected.

This is a competent thriller that takes full advantage of its Venetian location, and the charm of Venice is where the charm of this movie lies. Von Donnersmarck has the makings of a great director, although The Tourist won’t go down as one of his signature films. It is, however, at least entertaining and if you’re into watching Angelina Jolie, she is at her best here. Actually, between her work in Changeling and this film, I might have to revise her position on my list of favorite actresses in a more upwards direction.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t get much better in the star power department than this. Magnificent Venetian vistas and the kind of upper crust lifestyles of the rich and shameless we all adore.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot twist at the end isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping as it should have been.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence a’plenty and a good bit of strong language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolie stated in an interview that the only reason she agreed to do the movie was because it would be a “quick shoot” in Venice.

HOME OR THEATER: The movie is on a grand scale that demands a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: How Do You Know

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn