Girls Trip (Lee; 2017)

Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before, four people who have been friends since college, and who have drifted further and further away from each other over the years but still keep in touch, decide to take a trip together to a festival in New Orleans to reunite and blow off some steam.  The “leader” of the foursome is successful in both career and marriage and writes self help books on how you too can have it all, the leader had a falling out with the one who had success as a journalist and who now has to pay bills with a celebrity scandal blog, one of the four is a parent, straight-laced, and is uncomfortable with the whole situation, and the final of the foursome is a partier and instigator constantly getting into trouble but is incredibly loyal to the group.  It’s an overly familiar plot with overly familiar archetypes, except this time, the cast is made up entirely of African American women.

The four actresses playing these women are Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish, and the chemistry between the four is fantastic.  It’s not just believable that these four have been friends since college, it seems like practically a given.  The actual performances are a bit of a mixed bag, with Queen Latifah’s being the best of the lot, but the writing is actually top notch for this type of story so this adds some nuance and realism to the foursome and to those who surround them that the performances might otherwise not.

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This script is the reason to see Girls Trip, and is also the reason that it stands among the best of this sort of film alongside movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids.  For, while all of the characters are an archetype, in addition to those listed above we also have the cheating spouse, the booking agent who seems a bit too friendly, and the old crush from high school, none of them are stereotypes.  The cheating husband, for instance, is always respectful, never loses his cool, and actually has an understandable, if not forgivable, reason for cheating.  He’s not just an asshole philanderer.  The straight laced character does let loose on the trip, but only once and afterward she does loosen up a bit, but doesn’t transform into a different person.  This honesty of character can be seen in everybody on screen, making those in the story relatable not just because we recognize a type, but because they act like and have the motivations of real people, not over the top caricatures.

Most importantly, though, the humor in this movie really hits.  I am not the target audience for Girls Trip, and I was laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from the corners of my eyes when the lights in the theater came up.  This may have been because laughter is contagious, for I did see the film with the target demographic – I was the only white male in the entire movie theater, and of the women in the theater only a handful were white – and everyone else was in hysterics to the point where I couldn’t hear the final lines of quite a few scenes, but I know that couldn’t have been the entirety of the reason for the laughter.  While the actors in the film may not have been the most subtle when it comes to the portrayal of their characters, they know funny, particularly Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith who steal every comic scene they are in, which is the majority of them.

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Final verdict:  Girls Trip may not contain anything we haven’t seen many times before,  hell we had Rough Night just last month, but it does the best that can be done with its too familiar pretense.  You could probably summarize the plot from beginning to end without seeing the film, and I’d bet you could get pretty close to the real thing, and yet, this is still a movie worth seeing.  These four ladies are hilarious, the writing they are given to work with has a lot more realism then most films of this type, and the subplot surrounding Queen Latifah’s Sasha Franklin may be the most fascinating I’ve seen in a debauchery focused plot.  Girls Trip may not need to be seen in the theaters to be enjoyed, though my audience certainly made my experience better, but it should be one to keep an eye out for when you get a chance.

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And, Hollywood, take note.  I saw three films this weekend at three different theaters, with Girls Trip being the third, and in every single case the lobby of each theater was as crowded as I had ever seen them and 95% of the people in each of those theaters were African American women.  This is not a film you would expect to draw gigantic crowds for, and yet there they were.  You have an audience starving for some attention and representation on screen.  When I did research for an article on racism in Hollywood which I have not yet published, I found that less than 1% of leading roles in Hollywood are portrayed by African American women, or women of any other minority for that matter, and that is criminal.  Love of film is something that can unite us all, but we love it most when we see someone who is a stand in for ourselves, and minority women get that stand in so far, far too rarely.  Sit up, take notice of the box office for Girls Trip on its opening weekend, and do the right thing, which also happens to be a profitable thing.  Win-win.

Get Out (Peele; 2017)

Any comparison between Jordan Peele’s, yes of Key and Peele, new horror movie Get Out and The Stepford Wives is not only apt, it’s intentional.  Peele has said in interviews that he has always loved the dystopian feminist 1975 horror film, and felt that a treatment of a similar script using black and white people instead of men and women could work.  He thought of the idea in 2008, right when Barack Obama had been elected into the Presidency and many were declaring racism dead in the United States due to this fact.  Now 9 years later his vision is finally hitting the multiplexes and is possibly even more apropos now than it was then, though it certainly has a very different spin to it.

The storyline of Get Out gives us Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), an interracial couple, he’s black and she’s white, who have been together long enough that she is now taking him to meet her wealthy parents for the first time at their palatial and far from the beaten path home by spending a weekend there together.   Despite Rose’s assurances that her parents (played wonderfully by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) aren’t racist, Chris feels something is wrong from the first moment he arrives.  To say any more than that is to enter into spoiler territory, but I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that Chris’ feelings are absolutely spot on.daniel-kaluuya-as-chris-and-allison-williams-as-rose-in-get-out

Jordan Peele both wrote and directed Get Out, but he does not appear in the movie even in so much as a cameo, so you would expect this to have some humor to it.  While Get Out does definitely showcase Peele’s incredibly sharp and unflinching wit from beginning to end, there is nothing in this film which would classify it in any way as a comedy.  It has moments of levity, sure, but this is a horror thriller through and through.   The way Peele’s signature wit is displayed here is through his sly commentary on race which seems to be obvious until you realize that there are many layers and levels to his themes which have been subtly but surely making their way into your consciousness as you watch.

Peele is not condemning more conservative and overt racial hatred in the film, but rather he is pointing directly at liberal racism, and as a liberal I can say that Get Out definitely does its job well, though to say more is to, again, enter into spoiler territory.  It also interestingly speaks to an underlying fear in the black community of white people, not just distrust, but fear, and particularly of well-off white collar professional white people.  I don’t know if this was intentional on Peele’s part, as I haven’t heard him mention that element of the film in his talks on it, but I thought this added another very interesting dimension to the film well worth some thought alongside the themes of liberal racism.agetout

This is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and his second feature film length writing project after last year’s Keanu, but you would never be able to tell as every single element of the film is handled at the very least competently, and most often masterfully.  The script is Get Out‘s high point, and while it’s seriously early in the year to talk about best of anything in any way, I predict this script is one that will still be remembered at year’s end.   It’s witty, thoughtful, tense, with sharp dialogue and excellent pacing.  Perhaps the only thing it lacks is strong character development, but since it’s a story that focuses on one specific event over one weekend that can largely be forgiven.

The acting is excellent for the most part, though Allison Williams as Rose and Caleb Landry Jones as her brother Jeremy can both fall a little flat much of the time.  Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents Whitney and Dean are the highlights of the film, being charming and parental while still having a sinister air about them.  They are constantly unsettling, but despite this you still understand why people would want to be in their company, or at least would think themselves silly for finding anything less than charming about them.  Daniel Kaluuya could have been a little better as our leading man, Chris, but he does what needs to be done to show himself as a sympathetic lead.  I did find myself rooting for him and putting myself in his position most of the time throughout Get Out, but his performance was inconsistent enough that I found the spell where he was concerned broken from time to time, which is what unfortunately keeps this movie from being truly great and merely very, very good.

The cinematography in Get Out is well handled, even if it’s never awe inducing.  It serves its purpose without ever calling attention to itself.  The art direction and practical effects in the film are also handled quite well, again never really calling attention to themselves in any way outside of doing exactly what they need to do.get-out-keith-stanfield

The section below is a more in depth discussion of Get Out’s themes, and so include some pretty major spoilers.  I am going to use white text to write it, so highlight the blank area below to read this section, or just skip to the final recommendation if you don’t want any spoilers.

Jordan Peele’s condemnation of liberal America is the most fascinating element of the film, and one I will have to think on a lot more before I truly come to any conclusion, and the fact that I can and want to really is the sign of a fantastic script.  Peele seems to be saying here that liberal America’s fascination with black culture, while it doesn’t have the outright hostility, anger, and hatred contained in conservative America, is just as insidious.  He seems to be saying that liberals don’t understand black culture any more than conservatives do, but that they still seek to control it with incorporation with white culture rather than through forceful dominance.

This also explains why I feel the movie has a, perhaps intended, perhaps not, subtext of black fear of whites, well more than just a subtext since this is a horror movie about whites trying to capture and control black people, but I’m not sure that’s what Peele intended thematically rather than just as a necessary plot element.  Is it a reasonable fear?  Absolutely.  There is no doubt that even the most well-intentioned of liberals would still feel more comfortable if everyone acted just like they do, it’s human nature to feel that way, and to say white culture is the dominant culture in the United States is so obvious a statement as to be insulting.

Final recommendation:  Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror and into directing is everything a horror movie should be.  It uses its plot and tension as a mirror into very real world cultural issues and insecurities.  It isn’t perfect, but it is incredibly thoughtful.  The acting isn’t always the best, and the horror is more creepy than scary, but I guarantee this film will leave you thinking about it for days on end afterward and could very well change or solidify your personal views on some very important subjects surrounding race and culture.

I Am Not Your Negro (Peck; 2016)

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American author and activist whose life was often on the fringes of the American civil rights movement, but due to his self imposed exile in France and his cynical nature never ended up front and center in the movement’s spotlight.  He met and describes himself as friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, and I Am Not Your Negro is a narration of his writing, and in particular his writing about these three men and his thoughts about their place in history and what the history of the black man in America really is, read by Samuel L. Jackson and set to images relevant to his prose.

Essentially, watching I Am Not Your Negro is listening to a book on audio while viewing relevant images and interspersing contextual video clips.  It isn’t an innovative documentary style, but it does the trick.  The style ensures your interest never wanders and emphasizes the points made through Jackson’s voice and Baldwin’s words.  Since the words were written in the late ’70s by a man who had largely divorced himself from American culture at the time, the visuals also do the majority of the work in tying the message to the culture and issues of today.  Baldwin may be making a point about Alabama but the images we see are from Ferguson, Missouri, for example.

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What Baldwin does excellently, better than any author I’ve ever read before, is eloquently and poetically describe the experience of living black in America.  The story has been told many times, before, of course, and every person’s experience is going to be a little different, and it seems Baldwin’s may be even more different than most who get films ade about them, but his use of language is so simultaneously sumptuous and descriptive that his account hits home in a way few before ever have, these are the words of a classic author, not an everyman.

The message behind the words in I Am Not Your Negro is very modern, even if the examples and references are very outdated.  Baldwin speaks about Malcolm X, King, and Evers in some detail, of course, but he also has much to say about Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Kennedy, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and many other 60’s civil rights icons.  What he has to say about these figures is very honest, sometimes praising other times condemning them for what they said and did, and making it very clear that Baldwin himself didn’t align himself with any of the era’s leaders or organizations thinking all of them had their place, but all had flawed visions, as well.  He felt liberals were condescending, the church born from a lust for power, the Black Panthers too single minded and angry.  No one escaped his criticism, but he also saw the good in most everyone as well.  Only conservatives truly eluded him, making him ask, “Why do you need a nigger?”, and admonishing them by telling them that once they figure out the answer to that question they will have their eyes opened to the evils of the United States.

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Final recommendation:  Baldwin himself makes the point, albeit in a different manner, in I Am Not Your Negro that it is pathetic that racism is still a relevant topic in the modern era of the United States, but relevant it is and will continue to be.   African Americans will unfortunately be the largest audience to see this film, most likely, and see it they should as it will give them validation, solidify their feelings with their thoughts, and will almost certainly allow them to see the problems they deal with on a daily basis at a slightly different angle.  For those of other races, seeing this film is even more important, as the lessons to be learned within are truly deep, thoughtful, phenomenally spoken, and can hopefully lead to a deeper empathy with our fellow man.

I Am Not Your Negro is normally a film I would say you could wait to see.  After all, America’s racism problem is going nowhere soon and seeing this film, as well done as it is, won’t solve those problems overnight, but given the current political climate in the United States the film takes on an urgency and importance not seen since the 1960’s.

 

Fences (Washington; 2016)

Long gone are the days when Hollywood would regularly tap Broadway for film ideas.  Sure, we get a very occasional Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, but since the millennium changed over to the 2s, it’s more common for Broadway to take Spiderman, or The Lion King, or Carrie than the other way around.  So when a play, granted, a Pulitzer Prize winning play, from 1987 made its way to the big screen nearly 30 years after its initial release it was pleasantly surprising, even when that play was recently revived in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis playing the lead roles.  Fences brings that revival to a larger audience with Washington now not just playing the lead role, but also acting as director.

Much of the original cast from the 2010 version of the Cort Theater show makes its way into the screen version as does the set apparently, which while obviously not an exact copy, seems to have been lovingly recreated for the film shoot, except this time without a fourth wall missing.  This sums up both the best element of Fences and the element that is most likely to turn people off, the fact that this really is the umpeenth performance of a stage play put on by some fantastic actors whom aren’t live.

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Having practically one set must have saved a ton on production costs, though.

Most of the hype around Fences has centered around the performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxon respectively, and that hype is absolutely deserved.  You can tell that these two have worked together as these two characters for a long time, because they give performances that are not just good, but that I can only describe as “lived in”, in that they absolutely inhabit and become these two people.  For most of the movie, you don’t feel like a spectator so much as a voyeur, for better or worse, but that is entirely due to the fact that you forget you are watching actors in a role, at least until a monologue with a close up, and there are quite a few to be seen here, is put on for us.

The original play is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and since what you are seeing on screen deviates only slightly, you are seeing some of the best character writing that can be put to paper.  The story centers on Troy, a black man who was once a professional baseball player in the Negro leagues, and who thinks he could have been much more had the color barrier been broken when he’d been playing.  He now lives with his wife, Rose, and son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo), and works as a garbage man.  The story is very much a character piece that show what the pressures of race, poverty, ambition, and pride can do to a man, and it never seeks to sugar coat anything, never make villains nor heroes where there aren’t any to be had.  It’s realistic and intimate, and if that sounds appealing to you then you will be blown away by what you see here, otherwise, there’s a good chance you will be bored.

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You see a lot of shots like this, because this really is what the movie is about – conversations, arguments, and tales.

Fences has some of the finest acting of the year on display, and it is worth seeing for that alone.  The story is an important one, too, and while you have to dig deep to get the most out of it, you’ll find it’s one worth digging into.  However, since it is such a stagey, cerebral piece, it isn’t necessary to see it in the movie theaters.  The best way to see it, honestly, would be on stage where it was meant to be seen, though you won’t get Washington and Davis then.  Catch Fences, it’s an incredibly meaningful and thoughtful work of art, but don’t feel the need to rush out to see it, especially since it’s one that needs to be taken in slowly to really get everything out of it you can.

Rating:  7.6 out of 10

 

Moonlight (Jenkins; 2016)

One of the many reasons we go to the movies is to experience a life that isn’t our own for a couple of hours.  Often this experience is a form of escapism, but it can also be educational or empathic.  We see someone else’s struggles and successes and we can imagine ourselves in their position, or we can cheer them on, or we can sit back and analyze their successes and failures and apply that to our own world.  Moonlight, the movie based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is the very rare film that manages to take the character piece one step further and lets us inhabit the life of its focal character, not just allowing us to understand them, but if you allow yourself to actually become that person, in this case Chiron a.k.a Little a.k.a. Black, for a short but immensely meaningful period of time.

Moonlight manages to do this by using every tool at the film director’s (an almost sure to be Academy Award nominated Barry Jenkins) disposal to give us this intense immersion into Chiron’s life.  First there is the astounding cast.   Chiron (pronounced Shy-Rone) himself is played by three different actors – Alex R. Hibbert plays “Little”, Chiron as a child, Ashton Sanders is Chiron during his high school years, and Trevante Rhodes is the adult Chiron “Black”.  Apparently these three actors never studied each other, never saw what the other two were doing with the role, and so brought their own fresh interpretation to the part.  It’s a testament to their talent, and the talent of Jenkins as director and writer that these three performances fit together perfectly, all seemed like the same person, but did truly seem like that person at a very distinct part of their life.  A big part of how they were able to accomplish this, I think, is through the fact that Chiron is a very quiet character.  He says very little, so most of what he communicates is through facial expressions, body language, and the actions he takes.  These three actors, and really the entire cast, manage to say more through glances and stances than many movie characters manage to say in pages of dialogue.  They convey things that in daily life we only get from our closest of friends and family, thus making these characters extremely intimate.

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Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” and Mahershala Ali as “Juan”

Then we have the incredible writing by Tarell Alvin McCraney in his original story and by Barry Jenkins in his screenplay adaptation.  Since it’s a story originally made for the stage, it uses a structure which divides the story into three very distinct acts.  Using this structure we are allowed to experience Chiron’s transformation from child to adult naturally, logically, and, at the risk of overusing the word, intimately.  Chiron, being a very quiet person, spends most of his time listening to those around him and reacting to the choices they make.  Jenkin’s screenplay somehow makes all of this both relatable enough that we can attach Chiron’s experiences to our own, but foreign enough to render it a brand new experience.  We see the kindness of strangers, the failings of family, the letdown of failed expectations, and the surprise of our own unexplored feelings all through Chiron’s experiences and it flows perfectly never letting us truly breathe except at the start of each act break but never overwhelming us to the point that we need to stop to catch a breath.  It’s an experience that creeps up on you, and surprises you with its depths that you don’t realize you are caught up in immediately.

The subtle brilliance of Moonlight, though, and the piece of the puzzle that allows all the rest to really work is the amazing cinematography by James Laxton.  It doesn’t have the in-your-face artistic beauty of a The Revenant, the discipline of Children of Men, or the incredible trickery of Birdman, what Laxton gives us in his cinematography is a window into the mind and emotions of Chiron in a way just performance and script can’t.  If Chiron is concentrating the point of view is rock steady and sharply focused, if he’s swimming the camera bobs and is half underwater itself, someone is on drugs the camera loses focus and can’t keep track of what it is meant to be looking at.  Without Laxton’s camera Moonlight would still be an excellent character piece, and still one of the best movies of the year, but it’s his astonishing use of point of view that truly puts Moonlight over the top as a work of art that is not only one of the best films of this year, but one of the best character dramas ever put to screen period.  It’s his his work that transforms Moonlight from a film you experience into a film you actually inhabit.

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Needless to say, Moonlight is a film I believe everyone must see.  There will be, and have been, films this year with more important themes, though the themes given to us here are still quite weighty and meaningful, and there will be movies with more entertaining stories, but there will be no other film this year, nor in nearly any other year, that can place you so firmly, so intimately, so subtly, and so emotionally into the life of another human being and let you experience an existence as someone other than yourself.  That may be the most important and most amazing thing a film can do, and that is what Moonlight does.

Rating:  9.4 out of 10

The Birth of a Nation (Parker; 2016)

Nate Parker is the writer, director, producer, and star of The Birth of a Nation, the film with the same name as the 1915 silent film which is known for its innovation in cinematography techniques which influences the way films are made to this day, but is also known for its racist and terribly offensive story line which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who made America a great country, Abraham Lincoln as a villain, and free black men as degenerates.  In telling the story of the great slave revolt of 1831, Nate Parker is obviously using the name ironically, but a little of the irony falls off on him because while the story is important and a strong condemnation of racism and the culture which encourages it, it also isn’t too terribly innovative in its more technical aspects.

The Birth of a Nation is first and foremost impassioned, most often in a good way but sometimes to the point of melodrama.  A series of events that led to a man gathering together a group of slaves to kill slave owners is little more than a slasher movie without the context of how Nat Turner  was brought to that point, and that means many emotional scenes, some positive, some negative – many negative, and while many, especially those early on are quite intelligent and insightful, the longer the film goes on the more it begins to rely on cliche’s and cheap emotional tricks.  Some of my favorite scenes show how the idea of owning another human being was so normative during this period that even those we were most empathetic to took it for granted, its quite powerful to find yourself really liking a particular character then have that character get excited when an person is bought for them as a gift and its just taken for granted by everyone.  But, later, we get into the stereotypical scenes in a slave era film, the whippings, the white man standing over a kneeling black man snarling and showing teeth, and the like.  We’ve seen the brutality in film after film before this, it’s not shocking because we’ve been grappling with it for years already, it’s seeing the normalization of people being seen as possessions that creates the shocks, and while those scenes give the film its power, there aren’t enough of them.

Along with the evils of treating people like objects , another powerful theme throughout the movie, and the one that is handled more intelligently, is a look at how religion can be used to control and to justify any cause.  The Bible ends up becoming a major focal point in The Birth of a Nation and nearly every action undertaken by the central characters is either motivated by or justified with Christian faith.  This element in the script is handled quite deftly, never attacking the religion itself nor its followers, but merely showing how easily people can be manipulated by the offer of eternal reward and how any action whether good or evil can be rationalized using the Bible as a reference.

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Here we see The Birth of a Televangelist

Parker obviously knows his way around a camera, but at least here never shows himself to be a true auteur.  Scenes are framed well and there is little to no cheating going on with perspective during action scenes or otherwise.  However, there is also not a whole lot going on in the way of true creativity.  Some scenes here and there are quite beautiful, but not often enough to definitively determine whether the beauty comes naturally or from camerawork.  What we see on display is definitely proficiency, but only the rudiments of artistry.

The acting is much like the camerawork.  The performances here show no weakness, but also don’t give us anything beyond the storytelling.  It’s obvious the actors understand their characters, but it’s rare that they truly embody them.  It may be a mistake for Parker to have directed himself, in fact, as his performance is the one that glues everything together, and is in many ways the most all over the place.  There are scenes in which he absolutely commands attention with a powerful charisma and others where he gives in to overacting.  He does his best to direct others, though, as his own performance is the most inconsistent.  The other actors range from professional to quite good, though there are no award contenders to be seen here.

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I’m practicing my Golden Globe speech right now, dickhead.

The writing on display here is also a little on the inconsistent side.  We have some great dialogue, fresh ways of looking at how slavery demeaned an entire people with consequences that last to this day, a smart look at how religion is used to control, and many very real, three dimensional characters.  However, we also have a script that devolves into cliche and “been there, seen that” more and more as the story goes on, characters that defy motivation and take actions that seemingly come out of nowhere just to move the plot along, and questionable omissions from the true story, both because they could make the themes of people being pushed to the limit even more interesting and sully the legacy of Nat Turner and his fellow slaves by turning them into something they weren’t for either dramatic effect or false empathy.

The Birth of a Nation is a very good film, and at times, an important film.  I recommend it, but not wholeheartedly both because it has some very serious flaws, and because it could have been more.  It looks to me like Nate Parker either didn’t have faith in his original vision, or he didn’t know how to follow up his story’s brilliant beginnings with equally brilliant follow through.  What could have been a really thoughtful and razor sharp look at the evils of cultural normalizations, the long term effects of the degradation of an entire people, and both the positives and negatives of religion and its control of entire groups unfortunately becomes a story that relies on dramatics and cheap emotional manipulation.  There is no doubt that The Birth of a Nation is a tense and passionate story, but you can see even as you’re watching it that it had the potential to be so much more.

Rating:  6.0 out of 10