Free Fire (2017)

 

Released: April 21, 2017. Directed by: Ben Wheatley. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson. Runtime: 1hr. 30 min.

I actually saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival last year (on Sept. 9, 2016), and this is a revised review I wrote in mid-September. I didn’t post this because I was a bad blogger back then but without further adieu, here it is…

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a balls-to-the-wall 1970’s gun battle, is one hell of a ride.

The premise is simple. Brie Larson’s Justine has arranged a gun deal between Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and gun dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Armie Hammer’s Ord. It’s set in 1970’s Boston in an abandoned warehouse and is largely in this one setting, and it’s the perfect set-up for the wild shootout.

Wheatley knows how to build tension from the word go, as the characters walk into the deserted warehouse to do the deal. Some characters don’t like each other, and after some developments, you can cut the tension with a knife.

The sound design make the initial gunshots sound like an IMAX film, almost like they’re in the same room. For the characters, chances of getting out alive decrease when all hell breaks loose and it becomes a true Mexican standoff. It’s like the atmosphere of The Nice Guys mixed with tension and dialogue that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. This does feel like parts Reservoir Dogs, too, with its limited setting and tension.

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Armie Hammer in Free Fire. (Source)

This still effortlessly manages to be fresh, and makes me want to see more of Ben Wheatley’s films (like Kill List and High-Rise). His movies all seem unique and different as he tackles many different genres. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump (they’re also married) also edit Free Fire – editing it in such a way where you can follow its quick pace, but you’re not always able to tell where some characters are hiding in the warehouse. It might be a ploy to put the audience in the same space as the characters – not knowing who they’re shooting at or where everyone’s hiding.

The ensemble created is great and each performer brings something memorable to their characters. The costume design, wigs and different accents also set everyone apart. Sharlto Copley’s a scene-stealer as Vernon and he has some of the best moments. Everyone from Brie Larson to Cillian Murphy to Michael Smiley hold their own, delivering physically demanding performances as they crawl on the dirty warehouse floor avoiding an array of bullets.

One of the film’s most pleasant surprises is Armie Hammer. I thought he was bland in The Lone Ranger (to be fair he had little to work with), but here as the calm and collected Ord, he’s badass. He’s also funny as hell, and the range he shows feels like he should be getting more comedic roles.

The most impressive thing about Free Fire is that it’s just deliriously fun. Action comedies can be hit-and-miss especially when there’s a task of finding the right balance. But director-writer Wheatley, and Amy Jump, manage to make the action consistently fresh. The people shooting at each other doesn’t feel repetitive and there are many ways to get characters out of situations. The dialogue’s sharp, witty and hilarious, and this is just some of the best fun I’ve had at the movies in awhile.

Score: 88/100

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Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Released: December 21, 2016. Directed by: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons. Runtime: 1hr., 55 min.

I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games, so I’m not sure if I would have been able to follow the Apple of Eden storyline better. But since I hadn’t played the games, I was pretty damn confused throughout.

Marion Cotillard’s psychologist character Sophia Rikkin tells us throughout that if they could acquire the Apple of Eden, they could rid the world of violence – because whoever has it controls free will. I didn’t really get the reasoning that if you have the apple, you would control free will, and it seemed like the writers assumed viewers would know that the Apple has mind-control abilities (which is fair, because most people who see this have likely played the games). I thought the explanation was murky, and the story suffered from a lack of clarity.

The story also suffered from just being generally uninteresting. Callum “Cal” Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death by lethal injection for murder – they never elaborate much past that – and since he’s legally dead, he’s taken in by Abstergo Industries (led by Jeremy Irons, father to Marion Cotillard’s character) for an experiment. Turns out, he’s the descendant of a Knights of the Templar member, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), and is taken through his movements and memories in 1492 Spain to see what happened to the Apple of Eden.

The most compelling parts of the story are definitely the scenes during the Spanish Inquisition that writhe with style, and you know when they’re in 1492 because of a transitioning crow flying through the air. The scenes are action-oriented, and are the most exciting parts of a largely boring feature. The costumes of the time are pretty awesome, too.

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Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed (Source)

Michael Fassbender is good in a dual performance. It’s an athletic one and the fact that he kept a straight face during a manic and rather hilarious (I’m unsure if the hilarity was intentional) rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” was impressive. That’s where the good of the movie starts and ends.

The character of Cal, or any other characters, aren’t interesting. Michael K. Williams made an appearance as another descendant within the Order and his characterization was slack, to say the least. His dialogue was rather cryptic. Cal’s characterization was alright – his mother was killed and it made him an angry person – but he was boring. Irons and Cotillard’s characters who were searching for the Apple were also nothing memorable, and were simply driven by the prospect of eradicating violence.

The whole screenplay just felt like the writers spent more care on the action sequences and fight choreography than crafting a competent story of any kind, with any characters you might even want to slightly root for.

I found the editing annoying when Lynch was plugged into Animus, the device that let him see his ancestor’s memories, since the scene alternated between Aguilar in 1492 back to Lynch in 2016. Perhaps it was trying to remind us that it had happened and now he was just living through the DNA memory, learning assassin skills as he went.

Whatever Aguilar does, Lynch does in 2016 – and the edits of him in Spain actually fighting real people was more interesting than Lynch in a huge room fighting ghostly holograms. It felt unnecessary to switch back and forth so many times, just because Fassbender’s playing both people and we know they’re doing the same exact thing but in different settings.

Cinematography-wise, everything was either too bright or really dark (at least when seen in 3-D). Fight and chase scenes were hectic, making things harder to follow at certain points on who was killing who. The frantic editing also helped avoid showing basically any blood whatsoever, which was ridiculous at one point when there definitely should have been blood. It apparently comes in the territory of adapting an M-for-Mature rated game franchise into a tame PG-13 movie that’s not nearly gritty or interesting enough to be good.

Score: 30/100

The Jungle Book (2016)

Released: April 15, 2016. Directed by: Jon Favreau. Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley. Runtime: 1hr, 45 min.

Director Jon Favreau brings his vision of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story of The Jungle Book to the big screen – telling the story with fantastic visuals and a stellar cast.

It’s a coming-of-age tale about Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub finding his place in his world with animals in the Indian jungle. In fact, Mowgli is one of the film’s only live-action actors with any substantial contribution to the story.

Seethi is given a high task to carry the film as the only live-action actor. His performance is remarkable, capturing the bravery and charming curiosity of Mowgli, as well as his inventive personality.

He’s the heart of the film and he shows a great maturity as the character. It feels like he’s been performing for years – but this is his first theatrical film, his only prior experience was in a short film called Diwali.

While Seethi is virtually the only live-action actor on display in the core cast – the world between the human Mowgli and the motion-captured, computer-generated animals blend together so seamlessly, it feels like he’s truly interacting with real animals.

The visual effects are flawless and so is the attention to detail in how the animals are rendered. It’s really as great as Life of Pi in terms of creating realistic, visually striking animals. The landscape portrayed is vivid and adds to the film all around. The way the actors capture animals’ behaviour and movements adds a heightened realism.

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Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (Source)

The voice performances for the classic characters are also great. Bill Murray encapsulates Baloo – his laziness is relatable and he’s a fun character.

Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheer, the panther who found Mowgli as an infant in the jungle. He’s also tasked with bringing him to safety to return to his own kind when he is threatened by Shere Khan, the fearsome Bengal tiger. Idris Elba is menacing as the primary villain and doesn’t like Mowgli in the jungle because he is a human and doesn’t trust them. A human gave Shere Khan his scars. This adds a layer to Mowgli, who at times has to question if he could be destructive like that, too.

Also notable is the presence of Christopher Walken as King Louie. He’s changed from an orangutan to a gigantopithecus, to make it native to India. It also gives the scenes with Louie a much grander feel and breathtaking scale because he is so hulking. He’s actually scary here, in a refreshing turn from the original.

His rendition of the original Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You” serves as one of the feature’s many high points.

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Neel Sethi as Mowgli and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) in The Jungle Book. (Source)

Murray also sings “Bear Necessities” and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa sings “Trust In Me” through the end credits. That’s it for the songs used from the 1967 animated musical.

Jon Favreau chose to tell the story of how Mowgli got on his own when Kaa (Johansson) was hypnotizing Mowgli, instead of having her sing the song. The slithering character is seen in only one scene – but she’s memorably chilling.

The choice to cast Johansson and gender-swap the character was to done to add another female to the cast, where the only other primary female cast member is Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.

It is one of the film’s only disappointing aspects that Kaa only has a small role, almost a cameo – as the more utilized “red flower,” fire to the animals, is more utilized as a villain here. The animated Disney flick basically only mentioned “red flower” in passing, so Favreau was more faithful to Kipling’s use of the element.

The way the story is structured is strong and the narrative is so engaging and entertaining. It also handles the iconic characters so, so well. This adaptation was penned by Justin Marks, who shows a great adapting ability. His two other prior screenwriting credits were a television movie (Rewind) and a video game adaptation (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li).

It might not have songs at every turn, but it handles its own very well as a film with a few violent moments. The third act is a great finale, and the film maintains a compelling pace – peppering comedy, drama and stunning action set pieces throughout. Some of the action even kept me on the edge of my seat at times.

Favreau perfectly finds a difficult balance of capturing the Disney magic, as well as making a mature adaptation that is unique and memorable. I think parents will be bugging their kids to see it so they have an excuse to watch it. And then watch it again. It’s truly great.

Score: 100/100

The Boss (2016)

Released: April 8, 2016. Directed by: Ben Falcone. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage. Runtime: 1hr, 39 min.

R-rated comedienne Melissa McCarthy and hubby-and-director Ben Falcone take a second shot at co-writing a screenplay together with The Boss after their first botched attempt in 2014’s Tammy. The good thing is this is a much funnier collaboration.

The basic story follows Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), the (fictional) 47th wealthiest woman of America. The film glosses over how Darnell makes money, simply billing her as a CEO of three Fortune 500 companies. It’s a poor-to-rich story, as Darnell grew up in the foster home system.

Her life gets ruined after she’s imprisoned for insider training. All of her belongings are seized and her house foreclosed, she learns when she’s released. She then stays with her former assistant and single mother Claire (Kristen Bell), basically the only person on who will give her a place to stay because no one is answering Michelle’s calls.

The story feels like Darnell is on a path to make money again, rather than redeeming herself as a person – which just comes out naturally. Her new business venture is a brownie company called Darnell’s Darlings.

She gets the idea after knowing the demand of Dandelions girl guide cookies, after taking Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) to one of the meetings. Claire is the baker for the company because she has a good recipe – and her motivation for helping is to get Michelle off her couch.

Michelle gets more likable throughout. But that’s easy considering her obnoxious introduction at a sold-out arena show about telling people how to make money – where she comes down on a golden phoenix to sing “All I Do Is Win” with DJ Khaled.

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Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell in The Boss. (Source)

The Boss is great example of how the essential falling-out of characters can ruin a film’s momentum. The clichéd moment arises because of Michelle’s lack of a family and fear of getting close to people.

The poor narrative is the film’s worst aspect. It feels like the jokes were written first, and then a story was shaped around them. To the credit of Falcone, McCarthy and Steve Mallory, there are many clever jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. That’s the redeeming part that makes this an entertaining film.

A flaw of the film is the fact that Melissa McCarthy gets almost all of the funny jokes. The film suffers when she isn’t on-screen. The character who misses the most is Peter Dinklage’s Renault, an aspiring samurai, or something. He’s obsessed with ex-girlfriend Michelle, where revenge is mostly on his mind, but he still has the hots for her even after she screwed him over.

His banter with his assistant Stephan (Timothy Simons) is simply awkward, but sometimes so stupid it’s almost funny. The character’s so poorly written that Dinklage just has to do his best with the crappiness he is given.

Kristen Bell’s Claire is simply boring – she only has a few good laughs to offer. She’s the set-up for McCarthy’s Darnell, characterized as a single mom who works hard for her daughter. We’re supposed to see Darnell as a really mean boss, but she’s not as bad as any boss in the Horrible Bosses franchise. Maybe we caught her on a nice week?

But Claire just keeps getting stuck with bad bosses, getting stuck with Dana Dandridge (Cecily Strong) when Michelle goes to prison. She’s supposed to be mean, but she’s cringe-worthy and awkward, ribbing Claire for being three minutes late at one point. Tyler Labine as Claire’s love interest is supposed to add a layer in Claire, but all it does is set up a funny scene when Claire prepares for a date.

The characters don’t work, and McCarthy is the best part about this. That’s high praise from me – since I’m not a McCarthy fan. Since everyone else is lackluster, it should be blamed on bad writing and directing from Ben Falcone. It feels like the next time the couple write something together – they should just hire a competent director.

Despite my problems with The Boss, I enjoyed myself and laughed a lot. That’s what counts here. While it may be weaker than any of the three McCarthy and Paul Feig collaborations – Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy – it’s a lot better than Tammy or Identity Thief.

Score: 65/100

 

The Brothers Grimsby (2016)

The Brothers Grimsby, poster

Released: March 11, 2016. Directed by: Louis Leterrier. Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher. Runtime: 1hr, 23 min.

I’m a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – the titular journalist character is rather brilliant. And his creation of the character Ali G was also quite funny.

His comedic work really makes him a unique figure, but he hasn’t made a great comedic character since Borat – as both the titular character in Brüno and Aladeen in The Dictator were hit-and-miss.

With Nobby Butcher in The Brothers Grimsby, he creates another hit-and-miss character – but at least gives him some stronger development. Nobby is a drunken football hooligan cheating the welfare system, living in the poverty-stricken town of Grimsby, cheering for his main team England.

When he was a kid, he was separated from his younger brother Sebastian through Grimsby’s orphanage system. Sebastian (Mark Strong) is now the top agent of MI6, on assignment to prevent the assassination of philanthropist Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz), and to uncover a huge terrorism plot by a group called Maelstrom.

When Nobby is able to get tickets to the charity ball and reunite with his brother after 28 years, he hugs him which causes Sebastian to miss his shot on an assassin (Scott Adkins) and hit a spokesperson instead. This mistake causes the other MI6 agents to think he has gone rogue – and Nobby and Sebastian are forced on the run.

The Brothers Grimsby - Hug it out

Grimsby is another addition to the cannon of unlikely people finding themselves in bigger-than-themselves spy missions as a spy, like Johnny English and Spy. While the world created here is a good base for Nobby’s hijinks, he is nowhere near as amusing as Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English or as hilarious as Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper in Spy.

The story is a bit heartwarming with the brother dynamic but the really raunchy and often gross-out humour rarely hits. The action set pieces are pretty good, well-filmed with Louis Leterrier’s style of direction.

The film is at its most effective in terms of comedy when Nobby is making awful decisions – but humour is ineffective when they hide away from government assassins inside of an elephant, and get stuck in there during mating hour. Yuck.

One masterwork of Grimsby is the casting of Mark Strong. It feels like he could be cast as an actual MI6 agent in a spy franchise so that’s what helps create a believable world. He does his job as the straight man for Nobby’s jokes, even though Nobby’s humour never really hit for me.

At least the film doesn’t stick around for very long. The only part worth rooting about is Donald Trump being the butt of a joke. He’s horrendously rendered via CGI, and there’s a really bad stand-in Daniel Radcliffe as well, but those are really the only jokes that hit for me. And the fact that Nobby’s look is based off of Liam Gallagher’s look is amusing.

Score: 40/100

Triple 9 (2016)

Released: February 26, 2016. Directed by: John Hillcoat. Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie. Runtime: 1hr 55 min.

In John Hillcoat’s latest film Triple 9, he brings us into the world of criminals and corrupt cops being blackmailed by the Russia mafia in Atlanta, Georgia, a location that is never exactly clear.

After the criminal crew rob a bank to get to a safety deposit box and Irina (Kate Winslet) doesn’t pay up, the rag tag group of criminals is forced to do another job so a Russian mafia boss can be released from prison.

To perform the tricky job, they have to kill a cop across town to get the police force on the other side of town.

The funny thing about Triple 9 is that the final result is incredibly “meh” but the opening 20 minutes is seriously really awesome. Heist films are really one of my favourite sub-genres. I love the intensity of them.

And Triple 9 had a really great opening, especially the getaway. When they bring out the red smoke with their red clothing and masks looking all like Deadpool; the look of it is super intriguing.

I thought when we learned what they stole – just information from a safety deposit box – wasn’t that high-stakes. But when we learn that the Russian mafia seriously mean hardball, the stakes get higher.

But since the crew are essentially being forced into these jobs, and based on the contents they’re stealing, it doesn’t feel like an honest heist film. It feels like that took a backseat where just general gangs, crime on the streets and corruption drive the car.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., and Anthony Mackie in Triple 9. So. Damn. Dark. (Source)

There’s one totally enthralling gang bust scene in the film and that, and the beginning, are the high points. Otherwise, it feels super mediocre. There is a lot of carnage and violence that makes it look ultra-stylized but the writer, Matt Cook, who is writing his first feature film screenplay, seems to be looking for a point throughout.

He never seems to be able to find strong pacing in the feature and it’s a bit confusing at times. The characters also aren’t interesting enough to engage us in the end. The cast is super impressive, however. Chiwetel Ejiofor heads the criminal team as Michael Atwood, a career criminal and family man.

Norman Reedus (Darryl from The Walking Dead) and Aaron Paul portray brothers Russell and Gabe Welch, respectively, and we don’t get much time to know Russell and Gabe is an annoying, rattled and paranoid druggie. The emotional range isn’t much different than how he portrayed Jesse on Breaking Bad.

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Norman Reedus in Triple 9Source

Clifton Collins Jr. and Anthony Mackie round out the corrupt cops as Franco Rodriguez and Marcus Belmont, respectively. Casey Affleck is a focal point of the film as Casey Allen, a new-to-the-streets cop and Belmont’s new partner.

Kate Winslet’s Irena is super uninteresting and just shows that she should never don a Russian accent ever, ever again. The accent is awfully inconsistent and she just phones everything in. Woody Harrelson is the lead sergeant Jeffrey Allen on the bank robbers case, sporting false teeth – but the drunkard adds a cool investigative aspect to the film. All of the characters, though, are restricted to very basic profiles.

It’s a well-acted saga of police corruption and blackmail, and the violence is well done.  But as far as technical aspects go, the film looks terrible. It’s super murky and downright hard to look at. Even in pure daylight – it’s far too dark.

When they’re inside, it looks like the budget couldn’t afford electricity of any kind. When you can’t see anything, it’s hard to tell what’s happening in the story. This contributing element makes it more average.

Score: 50/100

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Released: February 26, 2016. Directed by: Alex Proyas. Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler. Runtime: 2hr 7 min.

Big-budget films as bland as Gods of Egypt should have no business over=passing a two-hour run time, but somehow, it feels the need to do so.

After the Egyptian God of air Horus (Nikolas Coster-Waldau of TV’s Game of Thrones fame) is about to be crowned the new king of Egypt, Gerard Butler’s Set, the god of Darkness, comes into play.

He breaks up the party in such a fashion that he kills his own brother Osiris (Bryan Brown) and then fights Horus, takes over the throne and removes his eyes – the source of his all-seeing power. Wicked.

Skip ahead to the slaves working for Set and him killing any God that does not bow to him, in an attempt to take over all colonies and reach ultimate power.

The film itself follows Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a mortal thief who steals one of Horus’ eyes back so that Horus can see and can take back the throne, and his free his wholly believing gal Zaya (Courtney Eaton) from slavery.

Bek and Horus, sporting an eye patch for the majority, venture through the landscape in an attempt to get the throne back. And Set wants to do whatever he can to stop him.

It’s a very traditional and a predictable storyline that’s not compelling. It’s quite boring, and the story is so tedious it becomes exhausting by the hour-mark. We basically know how it’s going to end and it’s not a thrilling ride to begin with.

The characters themselves are dull. There’s not enough depth for Bek to particularly root for him, and Thwaites just puts in a performance that never really goes anywhere in terms of emotion. Gerard Butler is unlikable here so that’s good for the character and he is convincing in that sense.

But he’s not great as a bad guy because he’s better as a bad-ass action hero; and just because he donned sandals and fought for Sparta in 300, doesn’t mean he should be cast in so many of these flicks.

He’s also a bit of a ridiculous caricature of an Egyptian ruler. He never really uses his army at least against Horus, and he flies around on huge beetles. It’s hard to take him seriously when he’s doing things like that.

Coster-Waldau doesn’t have enough presence to head the film well as a secondary hero. He really does need the presence since these Gods are supposed to be about nine feet tall and the camera angles and forced perspective sell the height, making humans look like Hobbits in this world.

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Gerard Butler as Set in Gods of Egypt. (Source)

They reach heights of about twelve feet when they turn into a “battle beast” form, so they feel like Power Rangers in that way, forming into something just to fight.

But Horus is basically a total jerk. When Bek brings him his eyes, he tries to kill him because he doesn’t want to bargain for his eyes. When he does get his eye, he starts to choke him. He comes off as unlikable and just ungrateful at times.

Courtney Eaton and Elodie Yung deliver okay performances in their respective roles, Yung as Hathor, the goddess of love.

Chadwick Boseman is okay as the god of wisdom Thoth. There are bizarrely multiple Thoth’s in a scene which gets a bit distracting. Also bizarre is how the film gives an R-rating a dodge because – even though a god tears out another’s eyes – it managed to show a lot of blood. But they made that work by having the gods spill golden blood, which is stupid in itself.

In terms of the films “whitewashing,” casting the majority of Egyptian characters as white people, the film should have learned from the criticisms Exodus: Gods and Kings faced. But Proyas didn’t learn a thing, and the joke’s on him because the film is going to have to make all of its money back in foreign markets.

The action set pieces are alright but hectic editing distracts, and there’s not imagination on display from director Alex Proyas. The dude is given a bad name for his shitty movies – but I liked I, Robot. But that one had an interesting tale to tell.

The visuals here are ugly, and something that belongs in a video game and not in  film with a huge budget. It’s filmed in a studio and the backgrounds rendered don’t have a lot detail and look even worse in 3-D. There’s a henchman of Set that looks like a mix between the villains from Predators and Jar Jar Binks. And their Anubis is downright hideously rendered.

There are also huge snakes that look awful. It’s just not a pretty film to look at – and if it has such a boring story, the visual effects need to redeem it. But they’re equally as bad – and I’m baffled as to where the $140 million dollar budget went.

Score: 3o/100