Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Barry, Season 2 (2019) * * *

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Created by:  Bill Hader and Alec Berg

Starring:  Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg

Season 2 of Barry is even darker than its first season, and that season put the dark in dark comedy. 
How can a comedy about an assassin yearning to leave his past behind be anything but darkness lurking on the edges?    Season 2 focuses on how no matter how much Barry thinks he's out, the life keeps pulling him back in.    The shades of gray Season 1 introduced are now fading to black for Barry.    He thinks he's free, especially after getting away with killing his acting coach's detective girlfriend at the conclusion of the first season, but the past isn't through with him by a long shot.

Barry Berkman (who took the surname Block as his stage name) wants to be an actor and his girlfriend and fellow actor Sally (Goldberg) is finally starting to get some work.    She appears on TV shows and her agents envision bigger things for her.    As far as Barry's skills as an actor?   Well, he's a much better assassin.    None of the scenes in which Barry acts show that he has any genuine talent for it.    The arc of these scenes is repetitive:   Barry starts out awkwardly silent and then improvises his way into Sally's and Gene's (Winkler) hearts.    They see a special, raw talent.    We don't, and frankly neither does Barry.    It is amusing to see Barry fast tracked to an audition with a movie director in his first try, while Sally gnashes her teeth in envy.   She worked and honed her craft for years only to see Barry make it look so easy.

Barry's criminal associates don't make it easy on him to leave his old life behind.    Monroe Fuches (Root) still hangs around, hoping to continue his lucrative association with Barry.    We learn when and how Barry gained a killer instinct, and how Monroe was there for him when no one else was.    Then, there's NoHo Hank (Carrigan), the Chechen mob boss who is likely the most incompetent mob boss you will ever meet.    He is in awe of Barry, and spares his life even though it would hurt him in the eyes of his superiors, or maybe get him killed.    Hank would be better off as an actor more so than Barry, because he has spent years trying to act the part of a badass criminal.

Gene, the self-important acting teacher, grieves the loss of his woman while attempting to rekindle a relationship with his estranged son.    His scenes with Barry take on duplicitous undertones, since it was Barry after all who killed Gene's girlfriend and hid the body.    Fuches knows this, and is not afraid to use that information in order to keep Barry close to him.    It would be easy to describe Fuches as a heartless opportunist, but he is a father figure to Barry, even if Barry won't care to admit it.    There is genuine heartbreak when Barry tells Fuches he is through.

Season 2 almost eschews any of the satirical material about acting and show business studied in the first season.   It is less comic and more angry.   Sally is still unaware of her boyfriend's true nature, but Barry's actions have consequences on everyone else he comes into contact with, whether they know it or not.    Soon Sally will be affected too.    This season has more of a pall hanging over it than last season.    Maybe because acting provides Barry some distraction and relief from his conscience, but now not even his new passion can extinguish the old one.

Monday, May 20, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019) * * *

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Movie Review

Directed by:  Chad Stahelski

Starring:  Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Asia Kate Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Houston, Halle Berry, Lance Reddick, Mark Dacascos

Parabellum is Latin for "prepare for war".   If this isn't a war, then I don't know what is.   When we last left John Wick, he was ex-communicated from the shadowy world of assassins and criminals he inhabits but can't escape from.    He broke a cardinal rule:  He killed a High Table member in The Continental hotel, and that is a no-no.    The hotel manager Winston (McShane) breaks another High Table rule by giving Wick a one-hour head start on the bounty hunters who will soon be looking to collect the $14 million bounty on Wick's head.

Wick looks up any allies and calls in as many favors as he can in order to have his persona non grata status lifted, but not before he has to battle weapons-wielding bad guys and dispatch them in increasingly creative ways.     The world of John Wick is an alternate plane of reality.   The cops don't intervene because there are no police in the world of the High Table.    The criminals police themselves and believe in honor among thieves.    The unseen High Table sets the rules, and when they are broken, they send the cold, heartless Adjudicator (Dillon) to enact punishment fitting the crime.   

Many are in trouble for assisting Wick in his hour of need, including The Bowery King (Fishburne), who uses carrier pigeons to run his empire, and even Winston himself, who has seven days to step down as The Continental's manager or face consequences he may have to face regardless.   The Adjudicator enlists the help of Zero (Dacascos), a sushi chef by day and assassin by night who employs an army of ninjas and has a certain, unapologetic admiration for Wick.   He has always wanted the opportunity to meet Wick, and then kill him, and it would be quite the honor to be the one to kill the legendary John Wick.

I won't reveal how this story, with all of its duplicity and swerves, unfolds, but once you brush realism and reason aside and observe the skillfully made cartoonish violence, you will find John Wick 3 a gleeful delight.    Reeves says very few words, but then again, he doesn't need to be verbose.    His actions are his words, as are his eyes and his scowl.    He is indefatigable, and whatever he has to keep on going after the pounding he takes, humankind needs it.    The supporting cast relishes their chance to go over-the-top, except for Dillon, whose Adjudicator is not a million miles removed from the emotionless, analytical, nearly robotic Taylor Mason on Billions.   

Wick's travels take him to Casablanca, where he calls in a marker on an old ally (Berry), who now runs the African branch of The Continental and is not thrilled with risking her life to help Wick, but a marker is a marker, and in this world, she must comply.   Her very mean German Shepherds act as the third and fourth members of the team when they take on Africa's finest killers looking to cash in on the bounty, before everything comes to a head back again in New York.

The hand-to-hand combat battles owe much to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and even though some of the fights drag on a bit too long, they are full of the same goofy energy and creativity Chan and Lee brought to the genre.    John Wick 3 is ultra-violent, but unlike the first installment, the last two injected some dark humor into the series and delves further into this mysterious underworld which Wick inhabits and can't break free of.    It takes great care to stand above traditional action shoot-'em-ups, and the fight in the room of mirrors is such a harkening back to Enter the Dragon, I halfway expected to see Bruce Lee resurrected in a cameo.    Perhaps Lee is the only person who can kill John Wick.  


The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) * *

The Sun is Also a Star Movie Review

Directed by:  Ry Russo-Young

Starring:  Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, John Leguizamo, Jake Choi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Miriam A. Hyman

The Sun Is Also a Star is a tale of star-crossed lovers who meet by chance on the eve of the woman's deportation back to Jamaica.    They walk the city, talk, flirt, and despite the woman's insistence that she doesn't believe in love, she falls hard for the guy.   All within 24 hours.    There may be people who are awed by the romance in this movie, the Deep conversations about fate and coincidence, and then onscreen examples of such.    I am not among those people, but if you are, then you will enjoy The Sun Is Also a Star much more than I did.

We meet Daniel (Melton) and Natasha (Shahidi) on a very important day in each of their lives.   Daniel has a meeting with a Dartmouth University representative that morning in hopes of becoming a doctor.    Daniel doesn't actually want to be doctor, his parents want him to be one, and he lacks the courage to say no.    Natasha and her family are going to be deported tomorrow, and Natasha wants to use this last day in hopes of finding a Hail Mary pass which will keep her family in the United States.    Her mother and father have resigned themselves to their fate, while Natasha makes an appointment with an immigration lawyer (Leguizamo), who may be able to stay the deportation.

But before their meetings, Daniel saves Natasha from nearly being squished by a speeding car and invites himself into her life.    He comes on strong, and in a more cynical movie, Natasha would tell him to buzz off, but she doesn't.    She allows him to walk her to the building where she has the meeting with the lawyer, and, wouldn't you know it, his meeting with the Dartmouth representative is in the same building.    Wouldn't it be something if they both were meeting with the same guy?
Nah, that would be too farfetched, right?

Soon Natasha and Daniel find themselves with a few hours to kill, and Natasha (who has yet to tell Daniel that her mail will be forwarded to Jamaica as of tomorrow) seemingly forgets all about the little matter of her family's deportation.    The movie seems to also.   Natasha meets Daniel's South Korean family, who run an ethnic hair care store in Harlem.    Daniel's father wants Daniel to honor the family by becoming a doctor, but Daniel wants to be a hip-hop artist (I think).    Daniel's brother Charlie (Choi) is hostile towards him, perhaps out of either envy or because he isn't allowed to have any other character traits except hostility.    After a long overdue fistfight, Charlie suddenly becomes a nice guy.    All the way in Queens, Daniel soon meets Natasha's family, who have more pressing matters to attend to than meeting Natasha's new love.

Daniel and Natasha have limitless energy and funding to travel all around New York like they do.   
They have time enough to slow down, have Daniel sing a karaoke version of "Crimson and Clover", which sparked unintentional laughter at the screening I attended and engage in PG-13 dry humping before Natasha decides she simply can't love Daniel.    Barring a legal miracle, her objections to a full-fledged romance are understandable.    Daniel is not as realistic.    He is all for following this true love thing to the end of the line, whenever and wherever that may lead.

I'm no expert in immigration law, but wouldn't a deportation be treated with a little more scrutiny than this one?    Wouldn't there be immigration agents around to ensure the family gets on the plane? 
The family packs so light you would think they were taking a weekend vacation to Jamaica instead of living there permanently.   But, The Sun Is Also a Star isn't drenched in realism, and it wasn't made to be.   It is for hopeless romantics who believe love can overcome all obstacles, legal or otherwise.   That isn't an unworthy premise, and the actors are appealing even though they aren't given much of interest to say. but The Sun Is Also a Star soon becomes so bogged down in lovey-doveyness that it just becomes silly. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Poms (2019) * * *

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Directed by:  Zara Hayes

Starring:  Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Pam Grier, Bruce McGill, Celia Weston, Rhea Perlman, Phyllis Somerville, Alisha Boe

You would think a story of a group of women living in a retirement community becoming cheerleaders would be ungainly and aiming for cheap laughs.   You would also be surprised at its charm and its heart.    It has poignant moments, and clearly defines how important it is to have a purpose in life.

We meet Martha (Keaton), a retired schoolteacher sick with terminal cancer, selling off her belongings in New York and moving to a Georgia retirement community where she hopes to live out the rest of her limited days in peace.    Her plans are quickly upended by her overly friendly neighbor Sheryl (Weaver), who despite having her grandson live with her and still relatively sexually active, still wishes to have the introverted Martha as a friend.    Sheryl tries too hard at first, and succeeds in pushing Martha further into her shell, but the two soon hit it off.    Martha wanted to be a cheerleader in high school, but never had the chance, and Sheryl suggests they form a cheerleading club at the stuffy community in which the security guards and a nosy busybody (Weston) seem to rule the roost.

Sheryl and Martha recruit a few other women who long to break free from their humdrum daily lives and attempt to learn to be cheerleaders, which gets off to a disastrous start at a local high school pep rally.    Their performance goes viral, leading to humiliation at first, but also an ally in Chloe (Boe), one of the popular high school cheerleaders who at first mocks the elderly women, but then joins them after her friends post the video online.   Chloe eschews her own popularity and cheerleading team leadership to befriend Sheryl, Martha, and company, and the results are warm and comforting.

Martha's time is more finite than the others, and her trips to the bathroom to vomit are sad reminders of that.    She keeps her illness from her friends, until she can't anymore, and watching how she and Sheryl bond over this news is the best scene in the movie.   Keaton may have top billing, but Jacki Weaver provides the most infectious energy.    We can't help but like her, and we root for the ladies as they work their hardest to make their mark in a younger person's game.    As Poms plays itself out to its inevitable conclusion, and the subplots tidy themselves up nicely, we find we can't help but like the movie as well.   It grows on you with its sweetness.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Hustle (2019) * *

The Hustle Movie Review

Directed by:  Chris Addison

Starring:  Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Ingrid Oliver, Alex Sharp, Nicholas Woodeson

Lord knows Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson expend a great deal of effort in The Hustle, a virtual remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) except the con artists are now women.    Their energy is for naught, because The Hustle adds hardly any surprises.   Hathaway assumes the Michael Caine role, while Wilson is Martin.   Truth be told, there is more slapstick in this remake, which is a sure sign of desperation.

Penny Rust (Wilson) is a small-time con artist whose scams include trying to bilk dunderheaded men out of cash to pay for her sister's ransom.    The fictional sister was kidnapped a la Taken (groan). 
Soon Penny descends upon the French Riviera paradise of Beaumont Sur Mer, in which Josephine (Hathaway) is the resident grifter swindling rich men out of their cash and jewels through more elaborate schemes.    The local police chief (Oliver) is on the take, so Josephine can ply her trade freely.    Once Penny arrives, Josephine resents her cutting in on the action, and after trying in vain to force Penny out of town, reluctantly teams with her.

Josephine is sophisticated, elegant, and classy.   Penny is, well, not.   Josephine attempts to teach Penny some manners, although considering Penny's role in the scams, this is totally unnecessary. 
These scenes are simply an excuse to have Wilson trip over couches, crash into walls, slip on floors, or have heavy things fall on her.    Soon, Penny tires of Josephine's unpaid tutelage and establishes a wager:  Whichever woman can extract $500,000 from a hapless tech millionaire named Thomas (Sharp) first will stay in town.    The other will leave.    The millionaire's first scene in the movie is of him falling into a swimming pool, just to establish his clumsiness.

Sharp is the gender-swapped version of Glenne Headly's role in the 1988 movie, and he is simply not as convincing a mark.    He is such an over-the-top dolt (with a shaky American accent to boot) that
we wonder how he could be successful in any of his endeavors, either present or future.   He's as
conspicuous as a cockroach walking across a white rug.   Headly was more subtle in her guilelessness, and wasn't quite the easy target the guys made her out to be.   She was pushed, but never tipped, to her would-be bilkers mounting frustration. 

Penny tries to engage Thomas' sympathy by posing as a woman with hysterical blindness, and Josephine then counteracts by posing as a supposedly world famous doctor who can cure her.   The comic possibilities with blindness aren't as rich as Steve Martin faking his way into Glenne Headly's heart as a wheelchair bound paraplegic in Scoundrels.    A french fry dipped in toilet water is employed as a method to snap Penny out of her psychosomatic condition.    Gross.

Hathaway and Wilson are charming actors, and they can't be faulted.    Instead, we wonder if the entire undertaking was truly worth it.    Gender swapping roles is common now, and that's fine if you have somewhere new to go with the material.    Watching The Hustle is like watching a local theater cast trudge their way through a classic play. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Long Shot (2019) * *

Long Shot Movie Review

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Starring:  Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Sarsgard, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., June Diane Raphael, Andy Serkis, Ravi Patel

There have been successful politically themed romantic comedies, such as The American President (1995), and then there is Long Shot, which is a bloated, sparsely funny take on a female running for president.    It runs two hours, and the painfully inexorable story could've been told with thirty minutes shaved from the running time.    There is nothing wrong with a romantic comedy in which opposites attract.   It is the staple of many classic romantic films, but Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, while appealing, just don't have the chemistry to pull this off.    They fall in love because the screenplay tells them they should.    I just wasn't feeling it.

Charlotte Field (Theron) is the overworked Secretary of State under President Chambers (Odenkirk), a former television actor who announces he won't seek re-election because he wants to star in movies.    Charlotte's name is bandied about as a presidential candidate, and for the most part, her appeal scores are high, except for sense of humor.    Her campaign manager Maggie Milliken (Raphael) wants Charlotte to hire a comic speech writer.    Charlotte finds her guy in Fred Flarsky (Rogen) (there's a Groucho Marx-type name if there ever was one), a journalist for a left-wing newspaper bought out by a right-wing Rupert Murdochesque mogul (Serkis) and leaving Fred without a job and hardly any prospects.

Charlotte and Fred have a Past, though.   She babysat him when she was a teenager and morphing into the environmentally conscious, politically savvy person she is today.    Fred, who was in love with Charlotte then and probably just as much now, agrees to be her speechwriter, and accompanies her on a multi-nation tour pushing a far-reaching environment initiative.    Fred and Charlotte hang out together, talk, share their love of early 90's music, and soon find themselves an item, albeit on the down low.    As Maggie coldly points out, Charlotte's approval ratings will drop drastically if she is
found to be canoodling with the likes of the slovenly Fred.

Maggie prefers Charlotte date the more telegenic Canadian Prime Minister (Skarsgard), mostly because that would enhance her standing with the public, but Charlotte can't seem to shake the warm and fuzzy feeling she has developed for Fred.    No Seth Rogen movie would be complete without drug references and a tired, hackneyed scene in which Charlotte lets loose on the town one night by getting high on molly with Fred.    The setup isn't funny and the payoff, in which Charlotte negotiates the release of an American spy while high, isn't anything to write home about either.

There is gross-out humor too, although the scene in which Fred climaxes while masturbating and jizz flies in directions we would never expect, is the movie's funniest.   I'm normally tired of bodily fluids being used for humor, but this was a creative use of said fluids.   Long Shot checks off the plot points you would expect for such a genre.   Sometimes, such plots are comforting and work even though they are as old as movies themselves.    In Long Shot, the plot creeps along without much electricity between the stars and some moments ripe for political satire falling curiously flat.   Rogen is an affable human teddy bear with an affinity for weed.    Theron is sleek, stylish, and with a sense of humor about herself which makes her human.    It is too bad these styles clash in Long Shot and the movie never finds a way to get going.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Intruder (2019) * *

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Directed by:  Deon Taylor

Starring:  Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy, Meagan Good, Joseph Sikora

If The Intruder were made in the 80's, it might've wound up on the midnight show cult circuit with audience members shouting at the screen.    The screening which I attended was similar in atmosphere, with audience members forgoing pesky theater etiquette of remaining mostly quiet during the movie.    One person forgot to put his phone on vibrate.    I believe people who forget to silence their phones in meetings or theaters honestly want people to hear their ringtones in their never ending quest for attention.

But, I'm reviewing the movie and not the audience, and The Intruder is no better or worse than similar films of the genre.    In The Intruder, a nice couple named Scott and Annie (Ealy and Good) buy an old, quasi-mansion home in Napa Valley from a peculiar widower who continually drops by unannounced and acts as if the house is still his even though he sold it and moved out.   The man is Charlie Peck (Quaid), who behaves like a man with barely bridled psychopathic tendencies just waiting for a couple of unsuspecting folks to practice on.    From his first scene, Charlie is off, probably because he kills a deer right in front of Scott and Annie as they examine the property.  
That is not a good way to start off the buyer/seller relationship, and things don't improve from there.

Charlie is odd, but agrees to sell the house for $3.3 million and after settlement drives away with the promise of moving to Florida to live near his daughter.     It is not exactly a spoiler alert to suggest the Florida story is a lie and Charlie has his reasons for hanging around the house even after he sold it.
Scott is naturally suspicious of Charlie, as would anyone when the former homeowner shows up to mow his former lawn.    Annie is lot more forgiving of such breaches of privacy, chalking up Charlie's behavior to that of a lonely old man who has trouble letting go.    Annie should be considered for sainthood, especially when she invites Charlie to Thanksgiving dinner after numerous episodes of him creepily dropping by.

We know not all is what it seems with Charlie, but it isn't like Charlie is a kind fellow to begin with.  Quaid's performance is an exaggerated slow burn, with every modification Scott makes to Charlie's former home simply inching him closer to his breaking point.    Scott's best friend Mike (Sikora) offers to investigate Charlie and digs up dirt in the nature of Charlie's wife's suspicious death.  Charlie says his wife died from cancer two years ago, but that turns out not to be so.   Why Scott needed Mike to do a deep dive into Charlie's background is strange.   Scott himself could've simply Googled Charlie and discovered this for himself.    Regardless, Scott conveniently doesn't tell Annie about what he learns, leading to one more awkward episode of Charlie and Annie spending time together and Mike meeting an ugly fate, which serves him right considering during an earlier visit he ticks off the stalking Charlie by taking a leak outside when there are four bathrooms in the house.

What can I say?   Completely bashing The Intruder is like scolding your cat for not being able to
understand addition and subtraction.   The Intruder is ludicrous, with a villain who may as well be wearing an "I'm a psycho" t-shirt, and a sweet, bland couple who are far more tolerant of Charlie's behavior than most folks would be.    The movie is made in a cheap, schlocky way with occasionally subpar production values, although I can't say I was bored, with suspense originating from wanting to see what silly development will happen next and maybe even the possibility of bad laughs.    Such as:  You would think Charlie would want to clean spattered blood off the wall before selling the house, or that someone would've noticed the blood during a home inspection.    Just saying. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Moneyball (2011) * * * 1/2

Moneyball Movie Review

Directed by:  Bennett Miller

Starring:  Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ken Medlock, Chris Pratt

Moneyball doesn't end with a walk-off homer or a game-ending strikeout.   It is about baseball, yes, but about the business side of the game.   Baseball is big business and each of the league's thirty-two teams uses any means necessary to gain a competitive advantage.   Back in 2001, the Oakland A's, managed by Art Howe and run by general manager Billy Beane, lost in the American League playoffs to the New York Yankees.    The Yankees outspent the A's by nearly three to one, and following the gut-wrenching series loss, the A's will lose their best players to free agency thanks to an A's owner with short arms and deep pockets. 

Billy (Pitt) is charged with an unenviable task of replacing his star players on a limited payroll.   He equates the A's to being organ donors for the big spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox.    "There are rich teams, there are poor teams, there is fifty feet of crap, and then there's us," he tells his scouts during an off-season meeting.    The scouts use intuition and the eye test to determine who the best
players are.   Billy, with the help of awkward analytics guru Peter Brand (Hill), implements a new
player evaluation strategy:  Find the players who are undervalued due to a variety of biases (too old, strange swing, odd pitching mechanics, etc.) but possess certain statistics which will lead to a favorable win-loss percentage.    "Like an island of misfit toys," says Peter, and his analogy is spot on.

The scouts don't buy into the new method of metrics.    Howe (Hoffman) resents being told how
to manage the club based on spreadsheets.    Billy builds a no-name team (except for washed up
veteran David Justice) for the 2002 season, and at first the experiment blows up in his face as the losses mount and the fan base calls for his head.   But, then the team gels and begins to win.   At one point, the A's set an American League record with 20 consecutive wins.    But, Billy aches to win the World Series, and even after a successful season beyond his wildest dreams, he wonders aloud if that is enough.

Billy is a former major league player who failed to live up to his potential.   He soon becomes a scout and works his way to the general manager's job for Oakland.    He is driven not as much by winning as by not losing.    He hates losing more than he likes winning.    There is a difference.    Brad Pitt (in an Oscar-nominated performance) plays Billy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas.   He is tired of being considered small-time, and implements his new system with the relentlessness of a pit bull.   But Billy has a soft spot for his daughter (Dorsey), and while he is still smarting from a recent divorce (which he perceives as another failure in his life), he cares a great deal for her.    You can't help but be impressed by a Pitt performance which uses swagger and arrogance to cover up his demons.    Those demons are past failures and he wants to erase them by winning the last baseball game of the year.

Jonah Hill graduated from stoner comedies to a multi-layered (and Oscar-nominated) role here.    Peter is socially inept, but when he starts talking about baseball and on-base percentages, he becomes a smoother talker than even Billy.    He is the nerd who never played baseball but always loved the game from afar.    Now, he has his chance to work in baseball with the first person ever to take his analytics seriously.    As part of his job, Peter sometimes has to tell players they are cut or traded.   H
His reaction is one of a man who would be happier sitting in his office in the bowels of the decrepit Oakland Coliseum than dealing with such a negative part of the business.

Buoyed by smart, knowing dialogue and an instinctive love of the game, Moneyball proves a baseball movie doesn't have to be just about the on-field play (although there is some in the movie). 
Moneyball sees the game from a rarely seen perspective, and it is quite refreshing to see.    We've seen enough of the players.    Moneyball lets the behind-the-scenes guys get their moment in the sun.