This month: “21 & Over”, “After Earth”, “Black Christmas”, “Capturing the Friedmans”, “The Hangover Part III”, “Man of Steel”, “Monsters University”, “The Oranges”, “Risky Business”, “Small Pond”, “Smashed”, “The Stone Roses: Made of Stone” (pictured above), “Stuck in Love” and “This Is the End”.
I don’t think blue is the warmest colour, but I suppose that’s artistic licence. The average rating is 5.28/10, with film of the month being Capturing the Friedmans. There’ll be a new post in two weeks with reviews of The Internship, World War Z, Frances Ha, The East, The Bling Ring and more. Follow @halfacanyon for updates.
21 & Over (2013) – 0.5/10
Directors/Writers: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Starring: Miles Teller, Skyler Astin, Justin Chon, Sarah Wright
“Thank God, you’re white.”
What genre is 21 and Over? Too depressing to be a comedy; not enough substance to be anything else. From the writers behind The Hangover, it’s a retread full of contempt for foreigners, women and the viewer. Justin Chon (his Asian heritage is sort of integral to the stereotype-laden storyline) passes out on his 21st birthday, also the night before an important interview. His passed out body is dragged around campus by his two American buddies (Teller and Astin) in a night of adventure that highlights the worst aspects of a night out – just without any self-awareness.
Once the tawdry narrative is established, the two male leads sneak into a sorority house; pretending to be the silent pledge mistress, they stare at and spank blindfolded girls stripped to their underwear. Followed by more lies, they commit what would be a sex crime if it wasn’t so horribly contrived. (Even if it is more believable than true-to-life Compliance.) The sequence is crosscut with a lengthy close-up of Chon eating a tampon in the women’s toilets. That is the grenadine soaked in a non-alcoholic cocktail of racism, homophobia, sexism and desperate pandering to the LCD (lowest common denominator, not James Murphy).
Not only is it all set in one night, but that’s probably how much was spent on the script. Every line is awkward and derivative, almost developing a language based on lazy stereotyping. Let me put it this way: the most sonically adventurous moment is someone vomiting in slow motion over a crowd of anonymous girls. His face turns towards the camera, as if aiming the sick towards the camera, which pretty much sums up the lack of respect for the audience.
After Earth (2013) – 2/10
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (story)
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
“Danger is very real, but fear is a choice. We are all telling ourselves a story.”
The web’s spun a few rumours that After Earth is all about Scientology. If only, then maybe there’d be some purpose. As it is, the sci-fi adventure is stale and inert. On the big screen, it’s clearly an expensive failure, when maybe some of that budget should have gone into rewriting the script. (Ghosting? Really?)
Love them or hate them, Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan are distinctive personalities who characterise their films, often overshadowing giant explosions. But their personal touches are absent, paving the way for 14-year-old Jaden Smith whose blandness is almost enveloped by greenscreen.
The core of After Earth is Jaden running around a deserted planet, interacting with CGI animals, while his off-screen father barks instructions. It’s possible that these orders became too tangled with the director’s feedback, but it’s likelier he’s just a terrible actor: a child thrown into a blockbuster through the same Hollywood nepotism that placed Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III.
Will Smith tells his son, “Katai, you are running from nothing.” The kid doesn’t stop. It becomes a meta coming-of-age tale about a young teenager discovering he can’t act, and he’s been thrust into a high profile world where it’s too late to turn back.
Black Christmas (2006) – 3/10
Director/Writer: Glen Morgan
Starring: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
“Buying a Christmas present for a serial killer?”
Without that bias, Black Christmas is still an unimaginative tread through the horror genre. A serial killer torments a house of teenage girls, and the ensuing gore is cold, cynical and forgetful. Vague self-awareness isn’t smart when it just exposes the cash-grabbing mechanics.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) – 9/10
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Starring: The Friedman family
“This is private. So if you’re not me, then you really shouldn’t be watching this because this is meant to be a private situation between me and me. It’s between me now and me in the future. So turn it off. This is private.”
That above quotation is from David Friedman, now a professional clown at children’s parties in New York. His warning is from home videos taken before his then 19-year-old brother (Jesse) and father (Arnold) strategically pleaded guilty to child molestation in 1988.
To this day, the surviving Friedman family members lambast the case for its admittedly flimsy evidence. But the director, Andrew Jarecki, takes a more neutral view. After eight months making a clown documentary, he casually asked David about his childhood and learned about his dramatic past.
David’s sad clown stereotype is fleshed out through those early tapes; he filmed his family falling apart without any plans for public presentation. It was, after all, before the YouTube era. Why would you document such an emotionally straining era? That’s one of many questions asked in this utterly engrossing meditation on manipulated memories, the legal system, and how to cope with losing everything.
When David’s father Arnold was caught buying a child pornography magazine, the police discovered he taught computer lessons to young students. A wave of accusations followed with children claiming they were subjected to extreme acts of abuse several times a week, openly in the classroom. Other witnesses rubbished this notion, insisting nothing happened. Arnold’s teenaged son, Jesse, assisted with the classes, and was charged with the same crime.
Jarecki’s neutrality can’t hide the witch-hunt mentality behind the police interrogation who told witnesses what happened, rather than asking. Really, Jarecki is the only neutral; everyone involved, including interviewees and journalists, has an extreme opinion.
Home videos are poetically integrated with talking heads and old television footage, relaying the madness through a horror firmly placed in the past tense. Aside from the “did/didn’t they” mystery, the real story is in the complicated family dynamics; relationships were already fractured by unspoken loyalties and resentments, and a national press story plays numerous psychological tricks. Arnold’s long-suffering wife, perhaps sensing an exit strategy, laments: “There was nothing between us, except these children that we yelled at.”
Jesse, only 19 and about to lose a large portion of his life, is the calmest of the bunch. No screenplay could rival the documented footage of Jesse clowning around hours before pleading guilty for a crime he insists he didn’t commit. It’s like Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, where a jury is suspicious of a suspect who won’t show remorse; but to see it, right in front of you, is oddly engrossing.
Even if both are innocent, Arnold admits to being a paedophile, a subject with which his wife delivers unconvincing denials. Further revelations unpeel a family frayed with secrets, almost using the conviction as an excuse to escape from each other. The viewer is left to find humanity and ugliness in these subjects (even in Arnold, who commits suicide so Jesse can profit from his life insurance).
Deeply ambiguous and utterly compelling. It’s redolent of a Seinfeld joke when George insists a lie isn’t be a lie if you believe in it – a maxim not just for the alleged victims, but also the fractured Friedman family.
The Hangover: Part III (2013) – 2/10
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Craig Mazin, Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis
“Who cares? It’s just a giraffe.”
The franchise repeated itself in 2011 with a Bangkok sequel (with director/writer Todd Phillips confirming a formulaic approach), so deserves some credit for treading new territory: this time, there isn’t even a hangover. It also isn’t so much of a comedy. Aside from some early Zach Galifianakis moments, The Hangover: Part III is an eerily self-serious heist thriller – albeit one so contrived and mean-spirited, it’s hard to root for anyone.
Once again, the gang (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and the other guy who no one cares about) stumble into a confrontation with a criminal. On this occasion, it’s John Goodman in extra shouty mode, barking some very prosaic exposition. Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis have to locate Ken Jeong and return Goodman’s stolen gold. Sounds like fun? You’re wrong.
The most memorable punchlines (although I hesitate to call them that) involve a decapitated giraffe, unexplained nudity, and words mispronounced in an Asian dialect. Cooper and Helms have the thankless task of delivering reaction shots and slow line deliveries that re-explain the plot. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, the cast’s voices sound like money.
For a “bromance”, there’s very little camaraderie between the leads, and ends the trilogy with a sour taste. All their journeys, those scuttles surviving death, and for what? To end with moronic slapstick? The chemistry is meant to be on the screen, but I felt a closer affinity with the unimpressed cinemagoers sat around me.
Man of Steel (2013) – 3.5/10
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan (story)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, a Nikon camera
“You’re not my Dad. You just found me in a field.”
On another planet, Snyder and Nolan fuse together perfectly; one loves dumb visuals, and the other obsesses over interwoven narratives. I would love to be on that planet, but Cavill (as the super-earnest, titular hero) fell to Earth; an alien who looks like a human, talks like a human, but displays the emotions of a robot following a script.
Snyder, unpopular with critics, throws in an abstract shot of a polar bear diving into water, and a flashback to Clark Kent reading Plato. I can imagine him thinking, “Yeah, now critics have to concede I love philosophy and arthouse cinema.”
It strikes me that Snyder must have been desperate to please Nolan, who was only involved in the early stages. At least, that would explain why Man of Steel is completely devoid of humour. It’s as if Snyder, after reading my 0/10 review of Sucker Punch, thought his sense of fun was all that stopped critics loving The Watchmen as much as The Dark Knight.
But Snyder must do more to be taken seriously than being, well, serious. Nolan’s Batman universe had personalities everywhere, from Bruce Wayne to Gotham City itself. And, as “serious” it might be, the Dark Knight’s exploits were never dull – which is Man of Steel’s biggest downfall.
For all the impressive explosions and non-stop action, it was a major struggle to care about anyone’s fate. I tried, I really did. The Avengers needed several prequels to justify the destruction of New York. Batman Begins was a low-key introduction to establish motives, fears and contradictions. Man of Steel, on the other hand, believes shots of Clark Kent Jr. provide the necessary character background.
Nearly everyone is reduced to a personality that’s equivalent of a one-line summary. Lois Lane, particularly underdeveloped, casually drops into conversation: “I’m a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist.” Otherwise, she’s just another damsel in distress. Russell Crowe runs with half the menace of the Les Miserables finale. Michael Shannon is, remarkably, severely more threatening in Premium Rush than as General Zod.
The standout performance actually comes from a Nikon camera that’s on-screen for about 10 seconds. It’s an assured close-up that conveys pride and self-confidence during a masterpiece of product placement.
The action sequences are occasionally breathtaking, particularly when Cavill soars at breakneck speeds. They also inherit some of Snyder’s videogame tendencies, meaning shots awkwardly zoom in and out, like when you change camera views when playing FIFA.
It didn’t help that Man of Steel was preceded by a trailer for Pacific Rim – also in 3D, it portrays indestructible beings battling each other, and you can feel the power of every exhilarating punch. But Man of Steel is like your parents catching you smoking, so they punish you by forcing you to finish several packs until you feel sick. By the end, I was completely numb.
Monsters University (2013) – 7.5/10
Director: Dan Scanlon
Writers: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
There’s a David Berman lyric that asks why monsters can’t get along with other monsters. In some ways, Monsters University answers that question. Set 10 years before the magnificent Monsters, Inc., Pixar deliver a worthy prequel that will appeal to everyone: adults, children and monsters.
Mike and Sully (aged 17 and 18) meet for the first time at a university redolent of the real world, aside from the monsters being more literal. The influx of new students swarm across dorm rooms and society fairs, like an ‘80s frat comedy. Amid the chaos, it’s perhaps more gag-heavy than usual for Pixar. Luckily, it bridges that humour with sweetness and wit.
Monsters, Inc. was a surprisingly poignant meditation on parenthood, and Monsters University does something similar from a child’s perspective. The adults’ looming heights suggest a child’s POV (the grown up characters may as well have used the Peanuts “wah wah wah” voice) but never in an obtrusive manner that would alienate older viewers.
The storyline doesn’t quite follow the life-or-death Pixar formula (typically a rescue mission), so the drama is more on an emotional level. That’s not to say there isn’t any action – it is, after all, a diligently animated adventure starring idiosyncratic, multicoloured creatures. It’s just that the central goal (winning a scaring competition) doesn’t involve an incinerator or Wall-E rescuing the human race.
Monsters University has a gentler tone that’s concerned with how friendships are formed. It’s possibly the best visual representation of strangers finding common interests, at least since the YouTube video of the dog riding a turtle. In a screening full of adults (disclosure: press screening), I felt the warmth resonating around the room, and even an “aw” for gigantic snail. In terms of prequels, this is the opposite of The Phantom Menace.
The Oranges (2012) – 4.5/10
Director: Julian Farino
Writers: Ian Helfner, Jay Reiss
Starring: Leighton Meester, Hugh Laurie, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener
“You… LIKE each other?!”
I’m trying really hard not to say something like “These oranges are rotten” or stoop to Rotten Tomatoes/Oranges wordplay. I am, however, trying really hard to make some duck l’orange pun, but I can’t get it to work – a fitting description for this tepid comedy, where dysfunctional families base their behaviour on soap operas.
Unsurprisingly, Julian Farino started his career directing Coronation Street – I’ve never seen it, but I bet the plot of The Oranges doesn’t stray too far. Two neighbours, two families, the best of friends – until Hugh Laurie has an affair with his best friend’s daughter, less than half his age. It’s a bombshell that lands at breakneck speed, with the same consequences as five minutes of Eastenders. Or Neighbours, actually. The marital split is surrounded by more side-stories than minutes in the short running time. “It’s a comedy,” you might say, but underneath the wackiness, The Oranges wants to be something more; its heartfelt attempts to be, well, heartfelt are pitiful.
The central “romance” is similarly conflicted by an ambiguous tone – is it a real romance or caricature? They’re too bland to be either. Only Allison Janney walks away with a memorable performance, leaving Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener reduced to slapstick. I walked away tasting bitterness, as if it was a Sundance film, but artificially commercialised – containing all the ingredients of a hit, like My Idiot Brother’s cynical marketing. It’s watchable, but don’t expect any ambition.
Risky Business (1983) – 7.5/10
Director/Writer: Paul Brickman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano
“If there were any logic to our language, trust would be a four-letter word.”
Wearing sunglasses indoors is so stereotypically shallow, it’s created a layer of irony (that also protects your eyes from UV rays). But when Cruise lays on the shades, it’s a star in the making. Not only is he aware of the cheesiness, he fucking loves it.
Cruise plays a precocious teenager obsessed with sex in a determined manner that should be outright creepy – especially when his attentions focus on a prostitute involved in criminal activity (aside from prostitution). His likeability is contagious, whether he’s navigating car chases, or having hilariously gross intercourse on a public train.
Materialism turns into an enemy, as Cruise finds social interactions and even romantic relationships are based on money – and regularly in the form of pointless ornaments with arbitrary price tags. So it’s not so much a coming-of-age drama, but a sickly amusing lesson in why life is awful.
Small Pond (2013) – 6/10
Director: Josh Slates
Writers: Josh Slates, Kirsten Straub
Starring: Hari Leigh, Susan Burke, Josh Fadem, Amy Seimetz
“It’s a great time to be in journalism with all the… stuff that’s going on.”
It’s hard to get out of the bath, even after soaking in water that’s turned uncomfortably lukewarm. That’s sort of the idea with Small Pond, a meandering comedy about everyday inertia and local negativity.
“It’s more a moonlight constitutional than a midnight stroll.
But it’s a nice night for it.”
The homemade element is clear, even with crisp picture quality. It’s an endearing comedy that’s presumably made by friends, out of fun. Aside from Seimetz and Burke, the low-key acting won’t be for everyone. The bigger turnoff will be the sitcom fakeness: Seimetz does a perfect Parker Posey impression (“Don’t fuck with my mushrooms!) and the barmaid can’t remember orders.
“I’m so embarrassed. I want to die.”
But there’s a likeability usually not present in mumblecore. The realism doesn’t magnify the smugness, but instead the sweetness of filmmaking; the quasi-philosophy of slackers. It’s more Linklater than Duplass. For all its faults, it’s rare for a sincere environment when a protagonist can fall asleep in a speeding convertible and you’re unsure if it’s acting.
Smashed (2012) – 8/10
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Susan Burke, James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman
“Okay, we’ll just chill out with the drinking. We’ll just be… I don’t know. Wine with dinner people.”
Forget the allure of your favourite TV stars (with Aaron Paul particularly exuberating Jesse Pinkman vibes), for this is the Mary Elizabeth Winstead show. After a series of caricature-ish roles, Winstead is challenged with the dramatic challenge of a functioning alcoholic finding sobriety; by improving her life, she simultaneously wrecks everything she’s built.
The marriage of Winstead and Paul is held by an unspoken love – if it is spoken, it is slurred. The pair drink every night but dive through life by lying and, for Paul, being a journalist who can work from home. (It’s not that fun, trust me.) Their luck encourages the other to spiral into karaoke, clumsy sex and a conversation lubricant.
That makes it even harder for Winstead; by joining Alcoholics Anonymous, she comes home to a husband spouting the opposite. The script makes this clear – there is no easy option. The 12-step programme is deeply flawed, but necessary when she drunkenly vomits in front of a class she’s teaching. Finding that middle ground is the question mark held by Smashed; if it exists, her alcoholic husband can’t live there.
The darkness is alleviated a subplot in which Winstead informs her boss that her drunken behaviour is actually morning sickness. I’m not sure comedic misunderstanding is what Smashed needs during its short running time, but it definitely could use a 12-step programme to remove the twee elements from the direction and post-production effects.
At least humour becomes a valuable monocle; Winstead’s sober eye spies a sloppier slant to her husband’s antics. But it’s never that simple – he’s never cruel. It’s just the pitfalls reverberate louder when dialogue has difficultly flowing without a bottle of brandy.
Initially simple, but subtly nuanced, there’s more to Smashed than a tale of independence. That credit must go to Winstead in a role not even Denzel Washington could realistically depict in Flight. With honesty, she stumbles through a dry, believable problem. After all, it’s hard not to praise the leading actress when she brings so much pathos to scenes of just walking around the city in the early morning.
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (2013) – 6/10
Director: Shane Meadows
Starring: The Stone Roses
“Fuck Oasis. Fuck Man City. It’s all about The Stone Roses.”
Four years ago, lead guitarist John Squire wrote: “I HAVE NO DESIRE WHATSOEVER TO DESECRATE THE GRAVE OF SEMINAL MANCHESTER POP GROUP THE STONE ROSES 18.3.09.” In 2011, the band announced a world tour.
The pressure is substantial, considering not even “The Second Coming” could build on the self-titled album’s momentum, so why now? Middle-aged, public squabbles, failed side projects; two forgetful decades. Made of Stone suggests the solution is to return to 1989 and pretend nothing’s happened since.
The band’s politics and frayed relationships are barely explored. Instead, Meadows searches for what it means to love a band that’s firmly set in the past – the first comeback gig is shot in black-and-white. Middle-aged fans run to buy tickets, trying to emulate memories of the 1990 Spike Island show.
Luckily, The Stone Roses deliver. The same line-up, no new songs, and opening with the “I Want to be Adored” bassline; it’s as if they never spent two decades trying and failing to live up to their success. Tellingly, Ian Brown regresses into a grinning teenage boy backstage, and transforms into a hero in front of a tearful crowd; he sings “I am the Resurrection” with conviction.
The archive footage is fairly electric, but unlikely to excite non-fans, regardless of what other reviewers might say. Meadows doesn’t pry into the group’s mystic arguments, even when Reni momentarily quits before an Amsterdam show finishes. He clearly didn’t learn the journalistic lesson of Almost Famous: don’t befriend the band.
For fans, however, it’s a must-see. Even when the latter third becomes a glorified concert video (with 12 minutes of “Fools Gold”), I saw the opposite of The Great Gatsby: four Mancunians chasing the past, and finding discovering that waterfall is even sweeter the second time. “It takes time for people to fall in love with you,” predicts Ian Brown. “But it’s inevitable.”
Stuck in Love (2013) – 7/10
Director/Writer: Josh Boone
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, Nat Wolff, Liana Liberato, Logan Lerman, Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell
“I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
That above line, a Raymond Carver quotation, is mentioned repeatedly by Kinnear, as if a direct reference to cinema audiences. It refers to the dinner table at Thanksgiving, an iconic family pastime cemented as an annual review of domestic affairs. Well, according to this family.
Josh Boone’s sentimental debut isn’t starkly original, but draws together numerous likeable characters. In a short running time, their comedic quirks err away from artificial categories.
It’s really three films interconnected: two coming-of-age love stories, and a divorced parent restructuring his life. The emotion emerges from warm performances (and comedic relief from Kristen Bell drinking a glass of water) where the exchange of “Fevers and Mirrors” is both embarrassing and moving.
And when it sticks too closely to a formula, there’s the funniest, most unexpected cameo since Zombieland. So go see it, just for that.
This Is the End (2013) – 7/10
Directors/Writers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson
“Dear God, it’s me, Jonah Hill. From Moneyball.”
Seth Rogen’s philosophy for Pineapple Express was that it’d be funny to see stoners incompetently fighting bad guys in an action thriller. This Is the End follows that formula, switching to apocalyptic survival: Rogen survives the end of the world with Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Pineapple Express co-stars James Franco, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson. To hammer it home, the “characters” create a trailer for Pineapple Express 2.
The Pineapple Express method crashed when Rogen re-attempted the genre mash-up with The Watch and The Green Hornet. Franco and McBride had similar issues with Your Highness (a heartbreaking low-point for Half a Canyon favourite David Gordon Green). Fortunately, This Is the End isn’t concerned with genre tropes or being taken seriously. Sure, there are explosions and monsters, but it’s first and foremost a comedy. And a self-indulgent one, too.
The James Francopalypse bears Judd Apatow’s fingerprints all over, even without his involvement; the semi-improvised dialogue is infused by immature jabs, all under the mist of marijuana smoke. Looking at the cast, it’s almost Knocked Up without Katherine Heigl.
Apatow’s other collaborators turn up to Franco’s house party, and it’s a living room full of celebrity cameos. It becomes the kind of gathering where conversation is built upon saying someone’s full name, just in case the viewer can’t recognise Aziz Ansari or Kevin Hart. With little explanation, a hole in the ground swallows up Paul Rudd, Jason Segel and countless other big names. It sets up the second and third act as mostly an inordinate chamber piece for the gang to pass time, wondering if they’ll die of starvation.
The second half drops slightly in quality because of the editing. Or lack of, I should say. It’s incredibly loose, redolent of Rogen and Goldberg’s confidence that off-the-cuff humour might sustain an audience’s attention.
They’re almost right. McBride is especially hilarious and divisive, with a slow-mo entrance taken straight out of Eastbound and Down, while Jonah Hill’s self-deprecatingly can’t stop mentioning Moneyball. That self-obsession (half ironic, half obscene) builds a narcissistic chemistry which is more self-indulgent than even Knocked Up, but takes accomplished comic actors and literally puts them all in a room. Even if it goes on for too long, the insular scenes include inspired moments like a DIY Pineapple Express 2 trailer (shot with the camera from 127 Hours) and Franco uttering, “But let’s not make Your Highness 2.”
Your patience also depends on how long you can tolerate the cast. It’s not as obnoxious as Entourage, but it’s very much a boys’ club. Disconcertingly, there are no female characters. Emma Watson is closest to a leading lady, with a few sentences probably all in the trailer. In addition, everyone plays themselves, so characters aren’t developed beyond asking, “How you could you not know who these people are?”
For all its faults, This Is the End doesn’t pretend to be anything but a comedy. And, judging it on that level, it’s hugely funny, even if at times it mirrors a lengthy Funny or Die sketch. It has more of the youthful enthusiasm of Pineapple Express (written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg before they were famous) than their more cynical flirtations with mainstream action fare. The cast grew up together as friends on film sets, and clearly had a blast surviving the blast. At the very least, it’s worth a cinema trip just to see Michael Cera coked up and hitting on Rihanna.
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