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What Happens In Vegas…

June 25, 2009

hangover

So, I went and watched The Hangover a few days ago.  This movie was pretty much what I expected: not extraordinary, not thought-provoking, but good enough for a guilty-pleasure, make-you-laugh movie.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit leery when it comes to comedies because the trailers tend to show the funniest parts of the movie and when you actually go to watch it, you expect more comedy but really only get stuff that doesn’t quite measure up.  So, all things considered, this one was actually worth watching.

Basically, you’ve got four guys who go to Vegas for a bachelor party and have a crazy night.  They wake up the next day to quite the scene in their villa and have to backtrack to figure out exactly what happened to them…and that’s when they discover that it’s worse than they first thought: the groom is missing.  And so, the three remaining guys set off searching for clues in an attempt to figure out where they may have been the previous night in order to (hopefully) locate their missing friend while finding themselves in increasingly ridiculous shenanigans along the way.  It makes for an interesting story and it isn’t so ridiculous that it’s completely unbelievable as is the case with most comedies. 

The storytelling approach worked well in this film: they took a page from J.J. Abrams and used his signature “start in the middle of things and explain how the characters found themselves in this situation” approach (fitting since Bradley Cooper portrayed the character of Phil).  Eventually the story comes full circle and returns to the scene in which the audience views at the beginning of the movie although we see it from a different angle.  Then it proceeds from there as our protagonists continue to look for their friend and attempt to make it home before the wedding.

And a final note…the slideshow with the pictures from the trip to Vegas that plays during the credits is actually quite funny.  I found myself wondering if those were staged or taken while the cast was actually out partying.  Quite frankly, I don’t see how even a great actor can look that wasted without actually being wasted.

Overall, The Hangover is not a great comedy but the situation is believable.  It’s not overly stupid with ridiculously exaggerated situations as are most comedies and it’s worth watching.  I won’t say that it’s worth paying the price of theater admission because I’d imagine most of my readers would say that this movie is worth the price of a rental but not a trip to the theater.  Honestly, I’d have to agree, but I took one for the team.

I suggest giving it a watch, whether you pay for theater admission or wait for it to be released on DVD.  If you’ve seen it (or even if you haven’t), feel free to share your thoughts.

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When In Rome…

June 9, 2009

angels_and_demons_eng1Alright, after waiting a couple of weeks on a friend whom I had promised to watch this film with, I finally got a chance to see it.  It still took me another week to finally write this review, so I do apologize for the wait.  But as the saying goes…better late than never.

I want to start this review off by saying that I did heed my friend’s recommendation to read the book before seeing the movie.  I thought the book was absolutely amazing (thanks Meredith for the recommendation) and I couldn’t wait to see how it played out on film.  I honestly didn’t expect much though, seeing as how I’ve seen some lousy book-to-film adaptations in the past.  It was an entertaining film in its own right, but since I read the book, I do have some negative things to say about some of the changes and omissions.  I am going to give details, so if you have a desire to read the book or see the movie, I’d suggest not reading any further until you have done so.

A lot was changed when this story made the transition to film.  And in my humble opinion, a lot of these changes were completely unnecessary.  Let’s start with the beginning of the film, shall we?  The beginning of the film started out showing and explaining the rituals that follow a pope’s death.  I suppose that could be necessary on film for establishing the context of the events and giving a bit of explanation for those who don’t understand what goes on after a pope’s death.  But considering recent history has seen a new pope elected, I’d say most everyone who would be viewing this film is at least nominally aware of what goes on in such a situation.  From the introduction the movie proceeds to the creation of the antimatter at CERN and the murder of Silvano Bentivoglio (Carmen Argenziano), a character who never appeared in the book (in the book, he had a different name and a different relationship to one of our protagonists).  In contrast, the book begins with the death of Leonardo Vetra, Vittoria’s father and partner in the antimatter research.   This was research that only she and her father were involved in due to its secrecy and importance.  In the movie, however, we see that there is an entire team of scientists working on the project.  Unfortunately, this makes it more likely that word would get out regarding the research and that the wrong people would find out about it, completely negating some of the mystery and further diminishing the fact that Silvano had spoken to the Pope and Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) in the first place.  And while we’re on the subject of CERN, Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN and an important character in the book, wasn’t even present at any point in the movie.  Instead his role was assimilated into that of Commander Richter’s.

The next significant difference I noticed was the fact that instead of being called in the middle of the night by Kohler, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) was instead approached by a representative from the Vatican in person.  That change doesn’t really matter much, however, I didn’t agree with the fact that the movie takes the approach of having the Vatican contact Langdon rather than CERN.  In the movie, Langdon flies directly to the Vatican, whereas in the book he flies straight to CERN where Kohler explains the situation and then introduces him to Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer) and antimatter is explained.  They then discover that the largest sample of antimatter has been stolen and when it turns up in the Vatican, they proceed there in an attempt to locate it.

There is also some differences in the makeup of the Vatican authorities in the movie.  In the book, Olivetti is the commander of the Swiss Guard; in the movie, he is replaced with a new character named Maximilian Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) who seems to be a combination of Kohler and Rocher (whose character actually seems to have been replaced with Father Simeon).  Olivetti becomes the head of the Vatican police in the film.  Chartrand appears to be portrayed much the same as he was in the book.

There are a few more changes that I found significant.  The Assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) was actually supposed to be Arabic, but in the film his character was changed so that he appeared to be of western origins.  I don’t know if this was some effort to be politically correct, but if that is in fact the case, I think this is one of those cases where being politically correct detracts from the story.  It takes away the entire motivation for the character.  In both the book and the film, the Assassin believes he is truly working for the Illuminati.  The real difference lies in the fact that the book’s Assassin is Arabic and his driving factor is revenge for the deaths of so many Muslims at the behest of the Catholic Church during the Crusades.  Politically correct or not, the Crusades were dark times for Christianity in general and such a motivation would certainly add depth to the character of the Assassin.  Instead, he was portrayed as simply another “gun for hire” as is evidenced when he explains to Langdon that those who hire him always find it important that he knows that his acts are for “Yahweh, Jehovah, or Allah.”  I’m paraphrasing there, since I cannot seem to locate the precise quote and it has been a couple of weeks. Regardless, even if it was a matter of political correctness, if we choose walk on eggshells and ignore the events of our past, then we are ultimately doomed to repeat them.

Yet another difference was the fact that Cardinal Baggia (Marc Fiorini) survived in the film.  Baggia was the fourth and final cardinal, and he was favored to become the next pope.  When Langdon failed to rescue him in the book, the situation felt hopeless.  I felt that was diminished when Langdon saved him in the film.  But don’t get me wrong, I did appreciate how the at first hesitant onlookers joined together to help free him in one of those rare occasions when everyone seems to come together.

The final change that I deemed significant was the fifth Illuminati brand.  In the book, it was the legendary Illuminati Diamond – an elaborate ambigram consisting of a combination of the four ancient scientific elements of earth, air, fire, and water.  In the film, it wasn’t even an ambigram.  It was two crossed keys crossed over one another and turned upside down, an obvious reference to St. Peter’s crucifixion.  The problem I have with this is that it really makes no sense as to why the Illuminati would have used this symbol as their final brand in the first place.  This did however, set the stage for one change I did appreciate.  In both the movie and the book, it was stated that Langdon had petitioned for years to get access to the Vatican Archives so that he could view Galileo’s Diagramma in order to finish a book he had been writing.  In the movie, he was rewarded with the final copy of Diagramma for his assistance; in the book, he was given the final brand (the Illuminati Diamond) on indefinite loan – a mere keepsake that served no real purpose other than being an interesting artifact.

I should also mention one insignificant change: the book was actually a prequel to Da Vinci Code, but the movie was actually a sequel.

I feel that I’ve probably spent a lot of time expressing my negative opinions about most of the changes and omissions (some of which I can agree with).  As a result, this review is probably a bit misleading.  I did enjoy the movie.  It is very entertaining and it is very well put together.  It does an adequate job of creating a sense of urgency and suspense, although I felt the pacing was slightly too fast.  The core of my issue with the movie is simply that I felt the transition from book to film could’ve been handled better.  I’d be interested to find out why some of the indicated changes were made.  If you’ve never read the book, you’ll probably have no problems with the movie.  You’ll be able to watch it and take it for what it is and be entertained and intrigued.  It’s definately worth watching in the theater.

But as I always say, don’t take my word for it, give it a chance and make up your own mind.

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“I saw a man, not a machine.”

May 27, 2009

Terminator: Salvation I prefer the Matrix interpretation of the man vs. machine concept, but that’s mostly for its philosophical and theological aspects. Terminator, however, is an entirely different model (see what I did there?).  Unlike its predecessor, this Terminator film wasn’t a complete waste of time.

First of all, let me apologize to all the die-hard Terminator fans out there. I’m not an expert on the Terminator timeline, and quite frankly I think it’s all rather convoluted anyways.  But…in my opinion, one of the central themes of the Terminator franchise has always been: can one really change the future? If you go back to the original film, you have the T-800 attempting to kill Sarah Connor in an attempt to prevent John Connor from being born.  In T2, the machines have sent the latest model, the T-1000 back to kill John.  Obviously, the machines fail again and SkyNet is supposedly stopped.  Then, twelve years later, T3 was released.  I’ll be honest here, I thought that film was so terrible I can’t even remember much of it.  The only useful thing it contributed to the franchise was the introduction of Kate Brewster, who would eventually become the wife of John Connor.  Oh, and that song that Gavin Rossdale did with Blue Man Group…

Alright, so now here we are with the release of Terminator: Salvation.  This installment is the first in the series to actually take place in the future.  And obviously, despite the best efforts of John and Sarah Connor in the previous films, SkyNet has still declared war on humanity.  Salvationtakes place before the T-800’s are introduced, just as the Resistance is planning a strike against SkyNet that would end the war once and for all.

I don’t really want to write about the plot, but I will say that I thought it was well-written (certainly an improvement over T3).  The simple fact that it takes place in the future makes it a different type of film than the others.  We see more of the actual war taking place, which is a breath of fresh air for the franchise, instead of just the Connors being on the run from the latest model of Terminator, though Connor (Christian Bale) is still a primary target, as is his father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).

The underlying theme I got out of this film was hope.  Hope for humanity’s ultimate survival against a superior opponent.  This very hope is personified in John Connor and the Resistance’s willingness to disobey orders and follow him as he attempts to rescue Kyle Reese from SkyNet (which one could even go so far as to argue is a selfish goal).  His very name carries enough weight to persuade members of the Resistance to ignore what General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) has ordered them to do long enough for him to accomplish his goal.  Whether or not his goal will ultimately save humanity from the machines still remains to be seen, but it illustrates an important lesson in hope regardless.

The film also raises an important question: What is it that makes us human?  This concept is illustrated with the character of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who we see at the beginning of the film as a man on death row in the year 2003.  He is convinced to donate his body to Cyberdine for the sake of science and he is promised he will live again to get a second chance.  He struggles throughout the film with whether or not he is a man or a machine and which side he really belongs to.  What it really comes down to is whether or not it is our physical shell that makes us human or whether not it is our heart and soul.   

Overall, this film puts a fresh spin on a 25-year-old franchise while throwing in enough to keep old fans happy and it features a decent storyline and some great special effects to boot.  It’s entertaining and worth the $8 or so to catch it in a theater.

But don’t take my word for it, I recommend giving it a watch and making up your own mind.

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My “Rosetta Stone”

May 8, 2009

In my last post, I mentioned Gareth Higgins’s book How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films.  In this book, he brings up the concept of what he calls his “Rosetta Stone.”  For those of you that don’t know…the Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian artifact which enabled scholars to translate hieroglyphics. But, for our purposes, the term is applied a bit differently.

Higgins refers to his “Rosetta Stone” as being more or less a code of conduct for watching films.  Items on his list range from never reading a review before going to see a film to always going with a couple of friends to never eating popcorn while watching a film.  Now, some of these may seem a bit silly at first, but he actually goes on to explain their logic.  And I have to say, I agree with most of them.

Back when I was “moderating” the small group at my old church, we spent one of the first meetings coming up with our own version of Higgins’s “Rosetta Stone.”  I still use this concept most of the time when watching films.  I say most of the time because I only follow it to the letter when I am alone, else my friends might just think I’m crazy.  But in all seriousness, it’s hard to apply the concept when seeing a film with a friend who isn’t as into looking at film in the same way as you are.  To some people seeing a movie is just a way to blow off steam and enjoy some mindless entertainment for a couple of hours, to others it’s a deeper experience.  For me, it’s usually an experience, although I do indulge in a guilty pleasure from time to time.

So, let’s get to the meat of this post.  My “Rosetta Stone.”  It’s actually pretty simple, and I’ll explain my reasoning as well.

1) Always go with friends whenever possible. – I love spending time with my friends. And I love having someone to discuss films with. I use the term “whenever possible” because I’ve accepted the fact that most people just don’t have the time or the desire to go watch a movie as much as I do anymore.

2) Preferrably, give the film and it’s implications some time to sink in before talking about it. – This is self-explanatory. Allow some time to think about what you’ve just seen before getting into a discussion about it.  Everyone needs a few minutes to gather their thoughts.

3) Don’t drink during a movie. – Yeah, this is a personal preference. It will increase the chances of having to get up during the film and that’s not something I like to do, so I choose not to have anything to drink.  Higgins said he doesn’t eat popcorn, and neither do I usually, but that’s just because I’m not crazy about popcorn. I will, however, sometimes grab something to eat while there, but not often. If I do, I’ll try to make sure it’s not loud candy. That’s just annoying to everyone around you.

4) Always watch the credits. – This may sound strange or a bit OCD to you. But as someone who edits video, I understand the fact that it took someone time to put all that together and that makes it as much a part of the film as the rest of it. And let’s face it, we live in a day and age where post-credit bonus scenes are becoming more and more common.  I don’t like to miss things.

And that’s pretty much it, to be perfectly honest. They’re simple and straight to the point.  They may seem a bit odd, but that’s just me.  Maybe you have a few quirks of your own that would fall into this category.  I’d personally love to hear them.

Until next time…

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“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” Part II

May 5, 2009

And so here we are again, continuing the story of my background with film and how it has played an important role in my life.  In my last entry, I promised I would get into the details of my later college and post-college years.  And so, here we go…

In the fall of 2002 I transferred to a small Southern Baptist college in Kentucky to finish up my final two years.  At the time it was known as Cumberland College, though today it is known as the University of the Cumberlands.  My final year there, I had most of my business classes wrapped up so I began to focus more on the communications classes that were needed for my minor.   Among those were Dr. Semmel’s History of Film I and II and Animation History.

Those three classes were probably my favorite three classes in my entire five years of college.  The first semester of film history covered everything from the beginning of film up until about 1950. I spent most of the semester researching and working on a profile of Humphrey Bogart.  The second semester covered everything from about 1950 up until the present day (which back then was early 2004).  I did more research and completed a director profile on George Lucas as well as a genre study on mobster-films which took a look at the original Scarface and The Godfather.  Animation history was pretty much the same type of class and I did my research on the history of Japanese anime and its introduction to mainstream American audiences.  That last semester was pretty hectic with lots of research going on at once. I’d frequently have to take a lower grade on one paper just because I was unable to keep pace with both classes at once (I’m easily distracted).

I graduated after that semester was over and I was promoted to a shift manager position at Blockbuster where I had been working since the previous summer.  Blockbuster employees get five free rentals per week, so between June of 2003 and February of 2005 when I finally left that job behind, I did a lot of movie watching. Not just rentals, either. With no schoolwork to occupy my time, I was at the theater once or twice a week. Whenever I could get someone to go with me.  I had a pretty good group of friends who liked to go back then. And if they wouldn’t go, my dad was always up for it.  Unfortunately, he passed away at the end of 2004 and after I moved to Knoxville in August 2005, most of my friends that I’d usually go watch movies with no longer came to Knoxville as much. For the most part, I was on my own when it came to film.  Going alone really wouldn’t bother me that much; catching a late movie by myself was always a sort of reflection time for me in many respects. But over time, it began to wear me down and I found myself less motivated to get out and go unless I was meeting friends.How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films

At some point in 2004, I discovered a very interesting book titled How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films by Gareth Higgins.  During my final years in college, I developed an interest in religion and how it relates to film, so this book caught my attention. Within this book is a number of film analyzations talking about issues relating to Christianity that can be found within films that one wouldn’t otherwise think to look for them.  It really opened up my eyes to the subject and I began to look at movies differently when I watched them.  There was one quote in the book where something was said about movie theaters being similar to modern-day cathedrals (I can’t find it in the book, and I can’t remember if Higgins said it or if it was in the foreword written by Tony Campolo), and that statement really struck a chord with me.  At the time I had probably been going to the theater more than I had church, and in a lot of ways it made sense to me.  Before long, I was buying everyone I knew who loved movies a copy of this book.

In October of 2005, I started up a small group based on this book at Cumberland Hope Community Church.  We met at my pastor’s house every other week and we’d watch a movie and discuss it from a spiritual standpoint. There were some movies that we would just have nothing to say about, and there were other movies where we’d spend more than two hours in discussion.  But, it was a small town church and over time interest began to wane.  One week in May 2006, it was just my pastor and I and the topic was “controversy.”  So for that meeting, we had made plans to go watch The Da Vinci Code, as it had just been released in theaters.  We watched it, we discussed it, and that was that. That was the final meeting for that class.

Now here we are, present day, and I still don’t get out to watch movies as much as I used to.  I think more than anything I just want people to go with me.  Sometimes I feel as though life’s moved on without me and people just have better things to do than hang out with me discussing film and philosophy.  I’d love to start up a class here in Knoxville like the one I used to host years ago, but the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself.  For now I’m planning to make an attempt to get back into the habit of going to catch a movie at least once a week. It’d be great to have company, but if not…then so be it.

The purpose of this blog will be a review blog of sorts.  I plan to go catch a movie, and write my own analysis of it. Like the class I used to host, maybe it’ll be from a spiritual standpoint, maybe it’ll just be a general review.  Either way, this will contain my thoughts and nothing more.

As I mentioned, the last film we watched in my small group was The Da Vinci Code.  So, I think it will be strangely fitting to do Angels & Demons for my first review.  I am currently making an attempt to read the book before the film is released…which I really should get back to right now.

Unless something else comes to mind…see you in a few weeks…

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“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of…” Part I

April 27, 2009

Film seems to have always played a major role in my life, whether or not I realized it at the time.  As I look back on my life growing up, I can see that now. I can remember as a child when my parents would take me to the theater to watch whatever caught my attention at the time, whether it be the latest animated film or the latest action blockbuster. I can also remember my parents taking me to the local video rental store (back before the days of Blockbuster, Netflix, etc.) to pick up a VHS copy of whatever I wanted to watch back when I had a weird fascination with horror films.  Fortunately I grew up with parents that didn’t really care what films I watched. I suppose people just didn’t care as much about those things in the 80’s and early 90’s.  I like to think I turned out just fine.

As I grew older, I wanted to get out and go to the theater more often. Of course, my parents thought I was too young to go by myself and for awhile it was always a battle to get them to take me as often as I wanted to go.  Finally, they gave in and just started dropping me off.  I suppose it began as a way to get out of the house and away from the parents and meet up with friends.  The last film I can remember my parents actually staying for was Forrest Gump.  That was when I was in 8th grade.

Eventually it became an obsession. There was rarely a week up until the time I graduated high school that I couldn’t be found at the local theater.  I couldn’t tell you now whether or not it was a developing love of film or just something to do in the small town I grew up in, but I would like to attribute it to the former.

It was when I first watched the original Star Wars Trilogy during my 7th grade year (it actually may have been my 8th grade year) that film slowly began to take on a different meaning for me, although the realization had yet to dawn on me.  Star Wars: A New Hope was airing on TV one night and I sat down to watch it with my dad.  I remember it was shortly before Thanksgiving and they were airing all three films over the course of the next few nights.  I had never seen any of them, though for a long time growing up I often confused Spaceballs with Star Wars.  I remember first hearing about the Force and my dad telling me during a commercial break that he interpreted the Force as being a reference to God.  I can’t say that I agree with his interpretation, looking back, but I can definately see where he was coming from.  I think I fell asleep somewhere around the time of the Death Star assault.  I proceeded to watch the next two Star Wars films over the course of the next few nights, wrapping the series up by watching Return of the Jedi in the guest bedroom at my grandmother’s house in Cincinnati while visiting for Thanksgiving as we did every year back in those days.  I enjoyed the films and eventually went back and watched the first one without falling asleep.  That was my first brush with the subject of religion and film.

I think things began to take shape at that point.  I had always had an abundance of creative energy inside of me, and growing up I often spent a lot of my time writing.  Eventually some friends had talked me into giving roleplaying games a try.  I humored them and gave it a chance, but I wouldn’t say I was ever really hardcore about it or anything.  Most roleplaying games back then were of the fantasy genre, and that just wasn’t really my thing (though I did later thoroughly enjoy the Lord of the Rings films).  I think it was about that time that I had ventured into the world of Star Wars novels, beginning with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which still to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction.  Also around that time, I had discovered that there existed a Star Wars roleplaying game.  Now that struck my interest.  It allowed me to expend those creative energies, entertain my friends, and dabble around in the rich universe that George Lucas had created.  I know, I was a nerd, right?

Fast forward a few years.  The year was 1999.  It was Christmas.  I had just received my first DVD player and my first DVD.  A little film known as The Matrix.  I had never made it to the theater to see that movie, but I had wanted to.  I had also heard that it was the perfect film for this bizarre new digital format known as DVD.  So, not long after getting the DVD player hooked up, I popped in the DVD and sat down to watch it with my dad.

I think Neo said it best when he said, “Whoah…”  I was completely amazed at the special effects as the Wachowski brothers combined their love of kung fu, gunplay, Japanese anime, philosophy, and comic books into this amazing work of art.  Again, back then all I saw was the surface layer, but it left a seed that would grow over time.

Fast forward a couple more years.  2001.  I can’t say that I kept up my schedule of going to the theater on a weekly basis during my college years, but I still went somewhat regularly.  Over the course of the next year, things really began to change in terms of my outlook on film.  Star Wars fanfilms began to spring up all over the internet and I watched a short film known as Duality for the first time.  I was amazed that some amateur filmmaker could create something that looked so convincing.  I was intrigued and I really started to research and take an interest in how films were made.  I dabbled with my first non-linear editing system back then and realized that I really wanted to create.

In the same year, I began dating a girl who loved old films. Black and white films.  At that particular point in my life, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could enjoy something so old and primitive compared to what we have in the present.  And of course, like any good boyfriend, I agreed to sit down and watch some of them with her.  And what do you know?  I actually ended up enjoying some of them.  I especially enjoyed the old Humphrey Bogart movies.

One of my favorite Bogey films was John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon.  It remains one of my personal all-time favorites.  There is a line in that film that has really stuck with me over the years.  Those of you who are film buffs have no doubt figured out what it is.  It is the title of this blog; it is the title of this post: “The stuff dreams are made of.”  Okay, I admit, the line itself didn’t originally come from this film; it was derived from a line in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  But that doesn’t make it any less relevant.

You see, I’ve always fancied myself somewhat of a dreamer.  I’ve always been extremely creative and eventually that creative energy turned into wanting to make films.  Not that I ever really lived any of that dream, though I have written a few screenplays.  Some people tell me I should actually do something with some of them.  The truth is…I wouldn’t know where to begin.

I’ll discuss in more detail my later college years and my post-college years in part two of this entry, as it’s getting a bit long-winded at the moment.

Until next time…